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.