Slipped into “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” among the torrential bullets and convulsive mayhem, is a protracted advertisement for a Mercedes-Benz S.U.V. A dramatization of the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Libya that resulted in the death of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the movie is a pummeling slog — 45 minutes of setup and an eternity of relentless combat. So it’s a relief when the director Michael Bay, amid this bleak fusillade, provides a little zigzagging action-movie-style relief. You can’t help but admire how well the truck holds up with its wheels aflame, like a 21st-century chariot of fire.
Those blazing wheels and several nods to Joseph Campbell suggest that there is more going on in “13 Hours” than in the usual Michael Bay conflagration. The king of screen chaos, he is best known for the “Transformers” series, with its battling robots. He makes big, bludgeoning movies stuffed with nonsense, special effects and military fetishism, and while they are ridiculous they can be absurdly entertaining when they’re not boring you out of your mind. A maximalist to the max, he has no interest in artistic niceties like nuance, scale and pacing, but he does know how to blow stuff up. What makes his commitment to mayhem somewhat interesting is that it’s never clear if this aesthetic of bombast originates from self-parody, a lack of self-awareness or maybe both.
His new movie finds him trying something different. It’s based on the book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” written by Mitchell Zuckoff with security contractors who were working for the Central Intelligence Agency. The book is largely an on-the-ground account from five surviving contractors who were stationed at the C.I.A. base, known as the Annex, near the American diplomatic mission. The movie is unlikely to change the minds of those who subscribe to opposing accounts of the attack, its lead-up, how it went down beginning on Sept. 11, 2012, and the continuing political fallout. Then again, anyone seeking clarity on anything shouldn’t look to Mr. Bay; cinematic intelligibility has never been in his wheelhouse.
Mr. Bay likes to go bold and likes to go bonkers, fattening his often-outrageous material with crazed visual strokes and thunderous explosions, helter-skelter angles and scattershot editing. He has moderately scaled back his extreme-cinema approach for “13 Hours,” perhaps realizing that its story or the ordeals endured by the C.I.A. security team merit a level of sobriety rather than showboating. Whatever the case, the results are more about the team’s prowess and less about his. Mr. Bay still wants to drop jaws (hence the fiery Mercedes), and he continues to bring that certain Bay obviousness to each scene. Here, though, his excesses are most apparent in the emphasis on the numbingly endless fighting than on the image plane.
Written by Chuck Hogan, “13 Hours” follows the arc of Mr. Zuckoff’s book, mixing scene setting with an introduction of Jack Silva (John Krasinski, pumped and cut), a member of the Navy SEALs turned private security muscle who is en route to Benghazi. Once there, he joins a bearded and burly brotherhood that includes Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale, radiating low-key charisma) and Kris Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), who are also special operations veterans. The real Benghazi contractors were part of a stealthy organization, the Global Response Staff, which, according to a December 2012 Washington Post article, was created by the C.I.A. after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to provide security for field workers. The contractors were, as The Post put it, “part of a broader expansion of the C.I.A.’s paramilitary capabilities over the past 10 years.”
The very existence of the Global Response Staff is at odds with the pop-culture vision of James Bond-types triumphing one kill and beauty at a time, and it’s too bad that the movie doesn’t poke around in its shadowy corners. Who knew spies need bodyguards? The movie glides over the organization, but the quick references to Libya’s traumatic past and present (Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi being dragged from his hole and so on), make the case for why the contractors are more or less on babysitting detail. This dovetails with The Post’s characterization of modern (human) spy work as “showing up in a Land Cruiser with some [former] Deltas or SEALs, picking up an asset and then dumping him back there when you are through.” It’s a touch sexier in “13 Hours,” which features intrigue over nice meals before everything goes to hell.
That hell feels interminable, registering as little more than a succession of strung-together, fragmented images of men running and gunning. And while the fight with the Libyans dominates the movie, its significance finally pales next to the battles they wage with the C.I.A. whiners and snobs they guard, particularly the Annex chief known only as Bob (David Costabile). Bob treats the contractors like the help — suggesting that there’s an essential schism between those with white collars and those with blue — which is one of the more interesting underdeveloped ideas, along with nods to the contractors’ financial struggles back home. But Bob’s arrogance, his dismissiveness, isn’t that of a run-of-the mill bad boss. It is, as Mr. Bay and company hammer away, symptomatic of the deeper problems that emerge one disaster at a time: Jack and his brethren are fighting on two fronts, the one outside the Annex controlled by the Libyan militias and the one inside, which is controlled by the American government.
That the American government is as much the villain in “13 Hours” as the attacking Libyan hordes (only a few are remotely individualized) isn’t especially surprising. Mr. Bay likes to wave the Stars and Stripes in his movies, but he prefers his heroes to be rugged individuals, even when they join together as they do here. This doesn’t necessarily always make sense, especially for filmmakers, whose work is inherently a collective effort. But Mr. Bay has built a career by proving that coherency — visual, narrative, ideological — need not be a prerequisite for his style of blunt-force cinema, which answers every potential problem with another display of power. In this way, of course, he mirrors the mostly faceless government powers criticized here, which itself makes him very American.
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult companion). War carnage. Running time: 2 hours 24 minutes.