Goddammit, Michael Bay.
It would be an understatement to say that Bay is a controversial figure in the film world. He’s been accused of being a jingoistic hack with absolutely no subtlety, concerned with nothing but making the biggest and noisiest tributes to America that will make the most money. And Bay himself has done nothing to contradict this public image — if anything, it seems like he’s only too eager to double down on it. Though personally, I’m more inclined to see Michael Bay as the cinematic equivalent of will.i.am: a diabolically savvy man who found tremendous success with his own distinctive style of mindless noise and chaos that’s impossible to ignore.
Yet in between Transformers films (you know, the multibillion-dollar franchise that Bay keeps promising to walk away from and never really does), Bay did try his hand at making a more intellectual socio-political statement in film. The end result was Pain and Gain, such an unfocused mess that it came and went without leaving much of any lasting impression.
And now Bay has come back with 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, based on journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff’s account of the Battle of Benghazi on September 11th of 2012. In the years since those events unfolded, Benghazi has been the subject of numerous congressional hearings and investigations. Depending on whom you ask, the Benghazi hearings are either a crucial necessity in making sure that we know what happened and who needs to be held accountable, or they’re a masturbatory witch hunt done to drag Obama’s name through the mud and hurt Hillary Clinton’s election chances.
Now personally, I don’t like to make political statements here. I don’t think that’s what you all read my reviews for. But staying politically neutral could be very difficult when we have a movie about one of the most hotly politicized events in recent memory, directed by a man who’s notorious for presenting the American military the way some other directors shoot porn, and who’s openly bragged about how he keeps Pentagon officials on speed-dial. Oh, and the movie is also coming out right at the start of an election year.
I went into this halfway expecting Michael Bay to make an overtly conservative fluff piece, which would inevitably have resulted in disaster. However (and I doubt very many other film critics have ever said this), I really should have given Michael Bay more credit. For one thing, Bay cares too much about the bottom line to risk pissing off either political party and driving away potential ticket sales. For another thing, Bay has always been very careful to glorify America’s military in a way that doesn’t veer into conservative war-mongering or liberal pacifism. Support for our troops has always been a broadly bipartisan issue, after all, and Bay has done well to keep within those lines.
So, no. 13 Hours isn’t about making any kind of partisan statement or advancing any kind of election-year agenda. It’s much more focused on serving as a dramatization of the most disastrous U.S. military fuckup since Little Bighorn (or at least the Bay of Pigs).
Right off the bat, I can tell you that this movie doesn’t point fingers at Democrats, Republicans, or anyone back at Washington D.C. Instead, the filmmakers depict the Benghazi incident as a perfect storm of circumstances that could only have ended in a catastrophic train wreck when it all came crashing down. To start with, there’s the fact that Gaddafi had just been killed and the whole country of Libya had descended into anarchy. The USA (more specifically, the CIA) felt obligated to keep a presence in Libya to keep tabs on the situation and try to nudge events into a more peaceful status quo. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a stable government for the U.S. to rely on for much of any support, and Libya was crawling with street gangs mostly comprised of Muslim extremists who aren’t very friendly to the West.
Basically put, the CIA had to keep a presence on Libyan soil without telling anyone else they were there. And that’s really the crux of what went wrong.
On the one hand, even America’s own military had no idea that the CIA had an annex in Benghazi until the attacks were already well underway. Which naturally meant that when American citizens were in dire need of backup, the armed forces were woefully unprepared to provide it. And that isn’t even getting started on the diplomatic complications of coordinating military transportation across country lines with a country that doesn’t even have a functional government. Furthermore, precisely because this whole thing was incognito, that means funding had to be tight and the CIA couldn’t afford to draw attention by way of, let’s say… flashy security measures or huge squadrons of trained U.S. soldiers.
On the other hand, there’s no denying the fact that the CIA is in perilous territory with no obvious way of telling friendly locals from hostiles. Furthermore, it’s in the best interest of American voters and Libyan citizens that the Americans stay out of this mess, at least overtly. The Libyans themselves have to do the bulk of the work in reclaiming their own government. Which means that allied Libyan forces — all untrained, ill-equipped, and unreliable — have to take point on everything, the CIA’s presence has to be kept a secret, and American forces must only be used as a last resort.
In summary, the CIA was depending pretty much entirely on keeping hidden to stay safe. Which meant that when their cover inevitably got blown and the Islamic radicals found out about where they were, they had virtually nothing for protection except for six ex-military contract workers.
(Reminder: I’m talking strictly about events as they were depicted in the film. I have no idea how accurate any of this is with regard to the real-life events.)
It can’t be ignored that the six CIA security contractors are glorified so much that pretty much everyone else looks incompetent. Even the U.S. ambassador’s own dedicated security detail (portrayed by Demetrius Grosse and Portland’s own David Giuntoli) are made to look like amateurs who can barely hold their own. But then we have the actual CIA operatives, all of whom are portrayed as indignant bureaucratic eggheads who couldn’t even wipe their own asses without a military escort. By far the most prominent case in point is the unnamed CIA Chief (David Constabile), who’s made to look like a stereotypical stuffed-up dickhead who can always be relied upon to make the worst possible decision at any given moment.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that Michael Bay is paying tribute to the American soldiers who fought and died to defend their countrymen in what basically amounts to the worst possible fiasco. But lionizing our fighting men and women at the expense of the U.S. intelligence community seems like a questionable move.
Then of course we have the Libyans. It should come as no surprise that the film offers no shortage of nameless, faceless brown people who get shot and blown up in all manner of ways. And yes, we do have the occasional ominous shot of Muslims praying with AK-47s in plain view. But just when I think that the film is turning into xenophobic tripe, it’s ultimately the local allied forces who come in and save the day. That was very tastefully handled, and the filmmakers do clearly point out that the whole ordeal was publicly mourned by Muslims in the region and all over the world.
That said, there were so many times when the filmmakers were trying to depict scenes in which our main characters aren’t sure if approaching locals are friendlies or hostiles. It seems that this is a crucial part of any film about post-2003 American military action in the Middle East, as The Hurt Locker and American Sniper both handled it very well. Unfortunately, those movies had a kind of subtlety that simply isn’t in Bay’s bag of tricks. Bay’s direction is so incredibly blunt that with very few exceptions, it’s always made very clear which brown people are good guys and which ones are bad guys.
It certainly doesn’t help that the camerawork and editing are shit. From start to finish, the film is burdened with a camera that won’t stop moving and shots that only last for five seconds at a time if that. It’s ugly and distracting and incoherent, especially when the shaky cam is abused to try and inflate drama where none exists. But the good news is that these problems are mostly kept to the first half. In the back half, when shit has really hit the fan, Bay is back in his comfort zone of explosions and gunshots and the visuals are much more confident. Even better, the back half has quite a few scenes in which the camera holds still and the editing slows down, which makes the more quiet and introspective moments far more powerful. Which is for the best, considering that these moments are so desperately needed as a relief from the action and a reminder that any of these characters could die at any time.
I don’t generally have a problem with how comic relief is used in this picture. The jokes are brief and they work as a very effective release valve, especially in the back half. But the movie still features an honest-to-God dance break set to “Sexy and I Know It.” One character threatens to respond to that moment with gunfire, and I honestly wish he had.
Getting around to our six main characters, they’re played by John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, and Max Martini. To be entirely honest, I doubt I could identify a single one of their characters by name. Nevertheless, each actor gets at least one moment to shine, we get a glimpse of what each character has waiting for them back home, and the chemistry between them is solid. The effect is that we’re led to care whether they make it out alive, and that’s a very crucial victory.
13 Hours has some serious problems in the first half, and the 144-minute film could easily have been trimmed by five or ten minutes at least. The film gamely tries for a paranoia angle, but Bay’s allergy to nuance sends it falling apart. Luckily, the back half is loaded with shootouts, explosions, and a looming sense of dread regarding who will get killed off and how the next attack will happen. All of which fall squarely into Bay’s wheelhouse.
I know there are a lot of people out there who’ve long since written Michael Bay off as a lowest-common-denominator hack, and this won’t be the film to convert them. But this may be the first time I’ve ever seen Bay use his powers for good. Bay used his incredible Hollywood clout to tell a timely and important story wrapped around an explosive political football, and he applied his unique specialties toward presenting that story in an effective and compelling way. I very strongly doubt that anyone else in Hollywood (with the possible exception of Kathryn Bigelow) could have taken on this story, convinced a major studio to get it made, and then spin that story into a quality and apolitical product.
But that’s exactly what Bay did. And I applaud him for it.