Let’s get in front of the narrative here. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Michael Bay’s tick-tock of the September 11, 2012 attacks on American outposts in Libya, is going to be a gigantic commercial success. It’s sort of a perfect storm of moneymaking elements, a dramatization of an international incident that remains particularly interesting to the segment of the movie-going audience that’s made big hits out of war movies for the past three consecutive Januarys (American Sniper, Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty). But those films went “wide” in January after Oscar-qualifying runs the previous month; no one bothered to take that step for 13 Hours, which takes the complexities of those films and burns them off like fat in the Foreman grill of director Bay’s shiny flag-waving. (13 Hours is as clumsily imitative of those films as his Pearl Harbor was of Titanic, and about as dire a sit.)
Point is, as it achieves that success, any critic who has the temerity to point out what a bucket of hog-slop 13 Hours is will find themselves dismissed, by everyone from Twitter egg-avatars to Fox News hosts, as a typical liberal America-hater. (Don’t believe me? Ask Amy Nicholson.) It’s an easy way to critic-proof your movie, and the woefully predictable outcome of putting a diplomatic tragedy and political hot potato into the hands of perhaps our most simple-minded filmmaker, but let’s do this: let’s ignore the obvious red and blue elements, let’s bypass the obvious digs at Obama and Clinton and the like, let’s take Bay’s word that his film “doesn’t get political at all” and that he only aims to tell this story and honor these men.
Even taken purely on those terms, it’s still garbage – punishingly paced, flimsily constructed, tackily executed with the subtlety and panache of a third-rate 1930s melodrama. In fact, the film’s real villains aren’t the faceless, nameless Libyans attacking these outposts; it’s the pencil-pushing, weaselly base chief (David Constabile), who insults and obstructs our heroes at every turn. “We have the best and brightest minds from Harvard and Yale,” he tells newbie Jack (John Krasinski), of the agents on their base, so “the best thing for you is to stay out of their way.” Fuckin’ smart people, am I right? He also, of course, insists there’s no danger to be found, and orders the team to stand down and wait after they get word of the attack on Ambassador Stevens – a detail refuted by a GOP-controlled congressional committee, as reported by Fox News, but there I go getting political. (He also notes, “This is my last station before retiring,” if you think to bring your Movie Cliché Bingo Card.) He serves as a portrait of bad judgment and incompetence no more finely drawn than Paul Gleason’s deputy police chief in Die Hard, though of course after he’s properly humiliated and cursed out by multiple members of the team, he gets to stand up straight and announce, “I’m proud to know Americans like you.”
Because, you see, it’s not enough for the team of CIA contractors at the center of Bay’s movie to fight for their lives and their country; they also have to battle every single other character in the movie, which is populated entirely by sniveling assholes. (After getting a smarmy agent out of a hairy situation, James Badge Dale’s Tyrone sneers, “I might not’ve gone to Harvard, but I’m pretty sure that was a tail.”) Even Ambassador Chris Stevens, the highest-profile casualty of the attack, is portrayed as an overly idealistic, talking point-spouting political hack, while the men guarding him are dismissed in dialogue as inexperienced incompetents. Early on, Tyrone announces to Jack that Benghazi is “not only hot as balls, but you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys” – a statement that reoccurs with such frequency, it becomes clear that the director shares his frustration. There is no nuance or shading; our six protagonists are “good guys,” and everyone else is a “bad guy,” full stop. So the good guys get the hero shots (see: Dale growling orders with gun belts slung over his shoulders, an image straight out of a lesser Rambo movie) and the macho dialogue (a scrambling of F-14s would “put the fear of God and the United States in ‘em”). You half wonder why Bay didn’t just go all the way with it, and raid the Paramount music library to drop in “America (Fuck Yeah)”.
As the film creeps into its third hour (seriously, does Michael Bay know movies can be less than 120 minutes?), a character announces he’s “had just about enough of this 2012 Alamo bullshit,” and man, were we on the same page. But I was thinking less of the Alamo than The Alamo, John Wayne’s bloated, simplistic 1960 directorial debut – or better yet, his notorious 1968 Vietnam epic The Green Berets, whose sensitive handling of a divisive conflict is just about in line with Bay’s. 13 Hours’ dramatization of the attacks is harrowing and scary, sure. But those technically proficient sequences are absolutely undone by the imposition of Bay’s customarily cartoonish style: the aforementioned low-angle framing, fetishistic weapons close-ups, whirling cameras in military situation rooms, slick chopper shots (including one over the Pentagon, helpfully labeled as “The Pentagon – Washington D.C.” via onscreen text), and, of course, flags for days. Most memorable: one at the ambassador’s compound, flapping dramatically in slow-motion, framed from above as it’s shot up from below by brown people.
The firefights, which take up a significant portion of the running time, are staged like an extended game of Call of Duty: bodies flying, random gunshots and explosions, and the inescapable sense that this is still Verizon-commercial Bay having a great time blowing shit up. He’s making typical Michael Bay war porn, the kind of military-industrial complex hand-jobbery that made his Transformers movies particularly insufferable – and with not even the slightest adjustment to his chronically chaotic sense of spatial relationships and ADD tempo, to say nothing of the sleek, music-video aesthetic (if Optimus Prime roared over the horizon in the midst of these battles, it wouldn’t come as a surprise).
Of course, a Michael Bay Bengahzi movie was a terrible idea, a comic mismatch of filmmaker and material, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have worked. Plenty of directors, creators with craft and integrity and respect for the stories they were telling, made films we wouldn’t expect (Scorsese’s Hugo, Soderbergh’s Haywire, Lynch’s The Straight Story) by adapting their style to the project at hand. Instead, Bay leaned in on his customary affectations. There’s one key moment worth drilling down on: the climactic death of a main character, caused by an incoming mortar. How does Bay visualize that moment? Via some sorta Mortar Cam, a CG shot attached to the incoming projectile, following it all the way down from the heavens to its target. That’s the movie in a nutshell, because even when dramatizing the tragic death of a protagonist, the filmmaker can’t resist a “cool shot” – or, even worse, a bit of self-homage (a similar shot was key visual in not only Pearl Harbor, but also Transformers).
And all the sad pianos and teary-eyed reactions and scorched family portraits floating through the debris like the feather in Forrest Gump merely serve to underscore the fact that Bay took that moment, and he cheapened it into whiz-bang “Bayhem.” In the Wall Street Journal, Mark Geist, one of the men at the center of the story, says, “I told Michael, if you do anything that disrespects the four Americans that died, I will beat the shit out of you.” Well, the filmmaker’s got an ass-kicking coming. Because at the end of the day, he took these brave men, and he plugged them into a goddamn video game. Fuck Michael Bay, and fuck his bullshit movie.
13 Hours is out Friday.