The Movie (4.5/5)
One of the more controversial films of 2016, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is the story of the brave team of six military contractors who defended the secret CIA bases in Benghazi, Libya from massive Islamic extremist forces on the night and early morning hours of September 11th and 12th. As one soldier mentions in the film, “I’m getting sick of this 2012 Alamo bullshit!”, but sadly that is probably the best analogy for what these men dealt with that night.
The movie is controversial because the CIA and government leaders do not support the events that are shown in the film, but I tend to believe the group of six men who fought off over 150 attackers and gave their lives more than the politicians who sat in an office and watched, so for what it’s worth, I took these soldiers at their word. The group was heavily involved in the making of the film with Director Michael Bay, and it is a very authentic battlefield experience, very similar in style and content to Black Hawk Down. Both films depict some of the biggest military snafus in modern US History, and they both tell a sombering, but heroic story of a small band of brothers and their courage.
Many people who hear about 13 Hours immediately mention the words”American propaganda”, but I personally don’t like the word, as it is negative and doesn’t give a film a fair chance. I never once thought that 13 Hours was propaganda heavy in the same way that Act of Valor or even American Sniper were. In fact, the movie does not mention a single politician outside of the Ambassador, Chris Stevens, and only once is it mentioned that “The POTUS is being briefed”. There is no scene where a group of politicians sits around and refuses to send help, or makes a poor decision, and they are not disparaged in any way to make a political statement or push a right-wing agenda. Instead, Michael Bay chose to focus on the men who fought their way home, thinking of their families and focused on saving the other 40 Americans on the base with them.
13 Hours is one of the more intense movies I have ever watched, and there are so many heart-pounding sequences that it is not a light watch by any means, but I simply could not take my eyes off of the screen. It is absolutely enthralling, exhilarating, and exciting. Many of the scenes reminded me of the border crossing scene from Sicario, which is one of the most intense movie-going experiences I have had. Now take that tension and fear and stretch it over the last hour and a half of 13 Hours, and you have a rough idea of what this movie feels like.
For the people who will scream his name in vain because of his past endeavours, this is Michael Bay at his best. Sure, there are a few gratuitous killings and explosions, but they are realistic, and by Michael Bay’s standards, they are more muted than usual. If you have ever questioned what a .50 caliber bullet can do to a human body, it can indeed rip someone in half, and you will indeed see this happen in 13 Hours. It is violent, scary, surreal, and an interesting look into the politics and conflict in the Middle East. If you are looking for Transformers, you won’t find that sort of movie here. The story is well developed, adapted from a book by the same title from Michael Zuckoff, and it is shot beautifully, even with most of the sequences taking place in the middle of the night.
The movie does not feature any big name stars, although viewers will like notice John Krasinski (Jim from The Office) and possibly David Costabile (Gale on Breaking Bad) but the rest of the cast features a bunch of seasoned actors who have been on various TV shows and movies, but not the “big name” you would expect a Michael Bay film to carry. However, I really liked this about 13 Hours and audibly commented on it to my fiancee while watching. It gives the feel that these guys truly are “secret soldiers” and treats them as just “one of the guys”, which gives the film a more realistic feel than if Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey had suited up in military gear. With their excellent chemistry as a unit, by the end of the movie you come to realize that these guys aren’t your average everyday guys, but they are in fact extraordinary individuals who often do not receive the recognition that they probably deserve.
Like I said, it is not a fun Friday night flick, but if you are looking for something gritty, something to get the adrenaline going, and something that depicts what will be one of history’s greatest stories for years to come, then 13 Hours is what you are looking for.
The Video (5/5)
The perfect picture quality score I have given 13 Hours should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Michael Bay’s filmography, as he often creates some of the most visually pleasing films in Hollywood. Obviously, a lot of this also comes down to the way that Cinematographer Dion Beebe shot the film. Beebe’s latest work was the excellent Sci-fi action movie Edge of Tomorrow, which was also brilliantly shot. For 13 Hours, Beebe used an Red Epic Dragon to shoot the film at a 6K source resolution with anamorphic lenses, lending to the wide scope of each battle sequence.
The film was eventually finished for theaters in 2K, and that is the presentation that we get for the Blu-ray release. Being shot digitally does give a bit of a glossy feel to a film that I think could have benefited from a little more “grit”, but in modern film-making digital is king, and it did not affect my viewing experience, so this is an extremely minor piece of feedback.
Coming from a 6K source, 13 Hours looks incredible on Blu-ray. With this being a fairly dark film, the use of lighting is extremely important, and not once did I struggle to maintain focus when the sun dropped and the Battle of Benghazi began. Another nice surprise was the use of many practical effects in the film, especially since Michael Bay is more well-known for massive CGI robots and asteroids than effective war movies. These practical effects looked great on the screen, but they were definitely not overblown like some of Bay’s previous works. Overall, the visual presentation here is top notch, and it makes for a great reference disc, especially to test our your HDTV’s black levels and contrast.
As great as the visual presentation was, I was surprised to find that the audio did not hold up quite as well. In full fairness, 13 Hours comes packed with a Dolby Atmos track, and while I am still working on getting myself a Dolby Atmos system (stay tuned folks – it is coming soon), the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track which runs on non-Atmos systems did not meet my admittedly high expectations. I compared 13 Hours to Black Hawk Down previously in the review, and I was expecting a similar level of “holy shit” audio that the Black Hawk Down Blu-ray featured, and I just did not feel the same way with 13 Hours.
I mentioned in the visual review that the effects felt muted and realistic, and that it was less spaceships and robots and more accurate battlefield action, and I think that this “muted” effect carried over somewhat to the audio. That being said, I have never personally been involved in a massive firefight at a CIA base in Libya (I know, I should get out more) so I cannot say that this audio track was not an uber-realistic experience, but sometimes the added punch that is given to Hollywood gun battles makes for a more enjoyable at-home experience.
You will notice that I still scored the audio a “4”, and that is because I am simply being picky and wanted more. Overall, the audio is above average, and dialogue is clear as day even in the loudest action scenes. I never adjusted my volume once during the movie, and all of my existing surround sound speakers were utilized properly. I do think that when my Atmos system becomes a reality, I will make an amendment to this portion of the review, as this is certainly one movie that would benefit greatly from added channels and the object-based speakers that Dolby Atmos offers. Props to Paramount for including the Atmos track and not skimping on the audio, allowing early adopters a new title for their systems and future-proofing this release going forward.
Packaging/Special Features (4/5)
13 Hours comes with a nice amount of special features, providing buyers with over an hour of bonus content on a second Blu-ray disc. This was great to see from Paramount, as most of the major studios have been skimping on special features, or saving them for unnecessary special editions, leaving smaller distributors as the only real source for extended special features. Thankfully, Paramount has curbed that trend, at least for this release.
- For the Record: Finding the Truth Amid the Noise (8:02) – a quick history of the events leading up to, during, and after the Benghazi attacks
- Uncovering Benghazi’s Secret Soldiers (27:34) – a journey into the world of military contractors and some interesting tidbits about the film’s real-life soldiers and their actor counterparts.
- Preparing for Battle: Behind the Scenes of 13 Hours (26:24) – typical Behind the Scenes fare
- Operation: 13 Hours Premiere (3:00) – quick featurette on the movie premiere at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, where thousands watched the movie on the massive jumbotron screen.
- In Memoriam (2:58) – A slideshow of the men killed in action.
As for packaging, 13 Hours comes with a nice slipcover, adorned with the American flag all over and featuring John Krasinski prominently on the front cover; no surprise given he is the only real “Hollywood name” attached to this film other than Director Michael Bay. The film comes with two Blu-ray discs, a DVD, and a digital copy which can be redeemed on iTunes and popular UV providers.
A nice surprise was the Blu-ray case under the slipcover, which was extremely well-made and felt very sturdy. The top of the case, where the Blu-ray logo is found, was actually indented some to give the cover art a sort of framed feel. I had never seen a case like this before, and could not find a manufacturer on the inside, although it did note that there was a US patent number. I did some research and found that this patent was approved in 2003 as a physical media case, so it is not a new type of media case, but it may be new to Blu-ray. If it is, this is a good thing as it is much sturdier than eco-cases or the typical amaray case.
Technical Specs (click for Technical FAQs)
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Slipcover with Blue Keepcase; 2 Blu-ray discs, 1 DVD, 1 UV/iTunes Digital Copy
English: Dolby Atmos, Dolby True HD 7.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
French: Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1
English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
At this point, 13 Hours is by far the best work in Michael Bay’s filmography, and the technical merits of the Blu-ray transfer are well above average. 13 Hours features one of the nicest video presentations of any modern, digitally shot film I have reviewed and the future-proofed Dolby Atmos audio is a great addition that I am excited to experience when I acquire the system. 13 Hours is a film that deserved more attention, and I think that without the political fire that unfortunately comes with the subject matter, this is a movie that is equally as good as any other modern war movie. Black Hawk Down, Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker; the list goes on and on when it comes to films on modern American conflicts, and 13 Hours wholeheartedly deserves to be on the short list of the best. I highly recommend both the film and the excellent Blu-ray release of 13 Hours.