Directed by Michael Bay
Opens January 15
Orson Welles famously referred to studio filmmaking as the “biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” In those terms, it becomes easier to understand Michael Bay—even when he’s not literally making movies about toys. The past decade of Bay’s filmography is majority Transformers movies, and that past-decade ratio will jump to five out of seven once the next one comes lumbering along in 2017. But despite the time he spends with them, I’m not sure robots in disguise are Bay’s favorite playthings. He favors more humanoid (if rarely actually humanized) action figures: the fantastical, superheroic military guys he shoots with a child’s awe and music-video reverence whenever he gets the chance.
In 13 Hours, his movie about the 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Bay seems to be distracted by a cool new toy.
The way his camera follows around the bearded, jaded, tough, brothers-in-arms CIA contractors who defended the compound brings to mind a kid tossing aside his army-guy figures in favor of something even cooler. Indeed, the Benghazi incident may have been a game-changer for Bay, introducing him to his new platonic ideal of manhood (formerly occupied by Sean Connery, Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg, and his fevered fantasies of military life, among others). The CIA contractors are all ex-military, so they’ve got all those awesome killing skills and all that macho loyalty, but without all that military hierarchy stuff, they bow to no authority! And if there’s anything Bay loves more than bowing to no authority, it’s the specific flaunting of gutless, bureaucratic authority—in this case the CIA wonk identified as Bob (David Costabile), because Wrongy O’Coward might have been too on-the-nose.
Bob is the boss of the contractor team that includes Jack (John Krasinski), Rone (James Badge Dale), Tanto (Pablo Schreiber), Boon (David Denman—Roy from The Office, forced into reunion with his old rival Jim!), Oz (Max Martini), and Tig (Dominic Fumusa). But he’s not their commander, goddammit, and he functions here as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in Benghazi; the movie stops just short of including a scene where he gives away the CIA base’s location in a phishing scheme. Of course, he self-identifies the CIA staffers as Harvard and Yale graduates; this is basically a snobs-versus-slobs conflict where the slobs are airbrushed into sensitive he-men. Who cares what the CIA is doing in Libya? All that matters, really, is that one of the soldiers gets to tell the boss (out loud!) that “you’re in my world now.”
That world is full of Islamic militants, attacking the compound and the CIA base with relentless, chaotic fervor. After the obligatory introductions of a few personality traits and families back home, which apparently necessitates turning the capable Krasinski into a grim sadsack, 13 Hours becomes an extended series of action sequences where the outgunned team defends the innocent (without even the obligation of military service!) and faces the possibility that they will sacrifice their lives. Given Bay’s fascination with the military, it’s something of a surprise to realize that he hasn’t personally directed one of these snuff-heroism pictures before; Lone Survivor, to which this movie is almost a spiritual sequel, was just Peter Berg in Bay dress-up.
The action, Bay’s supposed specialty, is certainly voluminous in 13 Hours (at 144 minutes, it falls short of taking place in real time). It’s grittier and, towards the end, gorier than the explosions that dot his Transformers movies, and sometimes he even pulls back for wide shots to emphasize the scale of the battles, making them look both large in the number of attackers and tiny from the higher vantage. The problem elsewhere isn’t even spatial incoherence, really; it’s a kind of spatial listlessness. Where things are happening aren’t indiscernible but uninvolving, because they’re just the Bay routine transplanted to Libya. And that routine has become deadening. For all of his childishness, the sense of play has long since drained out of Bay’s actual movies.
Of course, this is an assaultive combat movie, and isn’t meant to be “fun.” But that’s just it: 13 Hours is more or less interchangeable with any other Bay movie beyond the way it tamps down his aggressively bullying sense of humor into a general surliness (repetitive, too: variations on a sarcastic “sounds like fun” are deployed at least three times; to be fair to Bay, by all signs this is a pretty lame screenplay). Whether he’s playing with Transformers or geopolitics, the frantic, fiery, low-angle specs are mostly the same. In particular, he’s taken to mirthlessly recycling his own images and shamelessly expecting them to maintain their impact: the bomb-drop POV that functioned as a Pearl Harbor trailer shot gets recreated here with almost spoofy closeness to the original, and of course the kids running through a field, setting off bottle rockets, rep a minor variation on a Bay favorite. The images of bodies falling from trucks and sucked underneath their wheels are probably supposed to be more horrific than the first time Bay did this, in Bad Boys II, but it looks pretty much the same. There are few horrors of war that can’t be reduced to blockbuster shtick.
13 Hours has been described as a non-political movie, which I guess means that it doesn’t specifically indict Hillary Clinton. Really, though, it’s non-political in the way that an undecided voter in the last week of October is non-political: through a kind of willfulness that is, itself, a baffling know-nothing statement. After arguing for permanent occupation in at least one Transformers movie, Bay has graduated to a weary, shruggy form of isolationism; this is the tragedy of American lives lost in some stupid other country. In Bay’s fantasy endgame, old Bob—spoiler alert?—is both unrepentant in his desire to stay in Libya and do his job, and then immediately chastened and humbled by his pride to share American heritage with the great men who have just saved him and also chewed him out. In 13 Hours, Benghazi happens in large part to audiences the chance to sneer at a fictionalized CIA guy. In other words: You’re in Michael Bay’s world now.