As Andrew O’Hehir put it so well, Bay is “the Leni Riefenstahl of late capitalism.”
The American flag gets a lot of love from Michael Bay. Every so often he directs his cameramen away from the overwrought chaos of his films to gaze upon the stars and stripes, always in oversaturated color, often in close-up. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a feature-length version of this close-up. Ironically, the flag is actually scarcely shown in Bay’s re-enactment of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack by Islamic militants on a US diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya. We see it twice: first, as the exposed sinew tattooed upon one of our heroes’ abdomens; then in full, floating amidst scorched detritus in the compound’s pool, in the film’s final shot. But like the flag—like any flag— 13 Hours purveys patriotic fervor in primary colors. It’s pure, iconic surface is paraded as depth, bludgeoning us with spectacle until we can’t tell the difference.
Signature Bay imagery is muted across the board: Sunsets appear to occur only once a day, for example, rather than every 30 minutes. More stunningly, a narratively central convoy of Mercedes are given mere moments of salivary attention, while the narratively tangential women are given next to none at all. This is not unfitting for a film set under the yoke of ad hoc Sharia law, but considering this same director dragged Buzz Aldrin onscreen in the third Transformers film to confirm that Apollo 11 had, in fact, discovered giant alien robots on the moon, it’s not unreasonable to assume that historical fidelity exceeds Bay’s priorities.
Yes, it would appear that this perennial teenager, at 50 years of age, is settling down and getting serious. 13 Hours narrows its focus to the eponymous half-day skirmish, as conveyed to journalist Mitchell Zuckoff in his 2013 book of the same name, and adapted by pulp novelist—and frequent Guillermo del Toro collaborator—Chuck Hogan. Broader geopolitical contexts are assiduously avoided, at least in theory (more on that in a minute). As the subtitle suggests, Hogan and Bay are chiefly interested in the six CIA security contractors enlisted to defend the Pentagon’s covert intelligence operations in Benghazi in the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi’s 2011 deposition. An ersatz protagonist emerges in John Krasinski’s Jack Silva, but all six are essentially the same character: former special forces, now jaded mercenary, with a family he loves and a job he hates back home, found either grimly pumping iron, grimly quipping that not-great and not-fun things are both “great” and “fun,” or grimly claiming he was certain he was done with this shit.
In short, these real men are written and played well within the bounds of action hero simulacra, distinguished with minor ensemble cast variations – one’s a bookworm, another’s a troublemaker, another the resident father figure – and flattered with freshly-chiseled faces from TV comedy, including The Office’s Krasinski and David Denman, Nurse Jackie’s Dominic Fumusa, and Pablo Schrieber, a.k.a. “Pornstache” from Orange is the New Black. Hackneyed, but reasonably compatible the 13 Hours relatively realist convictions. From the start, the film expends great energy accumulating local, psychological and procedural detail, and grounding the action in day-to-day realities. It conforms, in other words, to the naturalist aesthetic that’s been the lingua franca of war movies at least since Platoon. No doubt this represents to Bay a chance at the respectability that always eludes him. In a perfect world, 13 Hours would be his Zero Dark Thirty. And make no mistake: even if the film’s admirably complex portrayal of the Libyans just means Bay is keeping with the times, then we’ve come a long way since The Green Berets.
It becomes clear in short order, however, that the Libyan terrorists are little more than a plot device generously furnished by history. The real threat the “secret soldiers” face, from very early on, is the tireless machinery of bureaucracy: what Silva eloquently dismisses as “some .gov shit.” Zuckoff’s book coyly refers to a CIA annex chief whose recalcitrance is blamed in part for the compound’s lapsed defenses, naming him simply as “Bob.” On page, Bob functions as a disembodied symbol of institutional shortsightedness. On screen, he’s endowed with ham-fisted dimension, a pallid petty tyrant in pleated khakis, played by David Costibile (Gale from Breaking Bad). The contrast with the rugged, lantern-jawed security contractors could hardly be starker. Ever the helpful guide, Bay even cross-cuts between Mark Geist (Max Martini), slick and shirtless in the outdoor gym, and Bob barking orders over a phone at one point; The scene ends with Bob calling Geist an “animal.”
The irony of Bob’s dehumanizing epithet, of course, is that it’s precisely the elemental nature of these men’s existence that the filmmakers consider the source of their immutable virtue. Rules and ranks are little more than the means by which weak conquer the strong. When Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), unilaterally seizing control, shouts down Bob (“You’re no longer giving orders, you’re taking them! You’re in my world now!”) it’s meant to be righteous vengeance upon anyone who ever dared question whether might was right.
Bay has claimed in interviews to have de-politicized his material. Indeed, no mention is made of a certain Secretary of State or her email correspondence. The point seems to be that these men were too busy fending for their lives to worry about politics—and that is exactly what is political about it. For a sizeable subset of conservatives, the Benghazi attacks represent a vulgar display of negligence on behalf of a progressive administration they’re already disposed to hold in bad faith, that has imperiled members of what they consider to be a consecrated class, former military men. To be sure, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to conclude that these 13 hours represented a shameful instance of State department oversight. But the film’s lack of interest in questions beyond that – such as, say, why we felt it necessary to stay in Libya after all other embassies had left, or why the CIA is outsourcing its security in the first place – avails its narrative to pretty much any political actor desperate for a Democratic Watergate.
13 Hours isn’t of much use if you fail to consider the Benghazi attacks more historically or emotionally resonant than simply the harrowing story of four civil servants, one of them an ambassador, killed abroad by terrorists. That it certainly is, but flashes of potential, including some understated gee-whiz moments in infrared, are crowded out by audiovisual mayhem. Bay’s style is as hostile to the sensorium as ever, especially once the attacks begin and maelstroms of gunfire, mortars, millisecond cuts and bright flashes on dark skies pummel us into drooling epileptic submission. As a coping mechanism in recent years, critics have begun conferring auteur status on the director, hoping some spoils await in reclaiming him as a misunderstood avant-gardist. This is and always has been a delusional stance: Bay has never shown enough imagination to merit the honor. Something like Pain and Gain, which indulged in the very same macho horseshit it satirized, at least makes productive use of his crass, swooping, slickly inhuman style. Here, where it’s meant to enshrine the gravity of a male weepie, it merely bookends useless kineticism with even more useless passages of what Richard T. Jameson once called a “stylish style.” Surely, Bay thought that the shaky-cam overdrive of the battle scenes in 13 Hours would convey the visceral impact of the violence itself, and it does—this is (Scout’s honor) the first movie that ever actually gave me a headache.
Maybe that’s the point: maybe its target audience of heartlanders and people who read Return of Kings will go to endure it like Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, ready for a patriotic baptism in the blood of real deal manly men, martyred by a world of whiners, sissies, and pantsuits who wish to be king. TownHall and National Review columnists will extol the validation of military victories as affirmations of superior valor, rather than greater firepower and better luck. As Andrew O’Hehir put it so well, Bay is “the Leni Riefenstahl of late capitalism.” Maybe it will enervate the country’s conservative base. But considering the packed preview screening I attended, where the end credits were greeted with profound indifference, I doubt it.