Michael Bay is inescapably Michael Bay. The auteur theory applies to him as much as it does to Terrence Malick, but Bay speaks in explosions instead of whispers and with gunfire instead of emotions. The problem with Michael Bay (or at least one of the problems) is his limited cinematic vocabulary. He’s sophomoric at best, and that’s fine when you’re making a movie designed to sell toys (I like the first Transformers movie) or an unabashedly insane action flick (Bad Boys II is a blast).
But that limited vocabulary becomes a problem when you want to make a film about the Benghazi attacks. Although Bay can claim that his new movie, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, is apolitical and it’s really just about the men who fought in that battle, there’s no escaping the attitudes of the characters because Bay doesn’t have room for subtlety. I don’t necessarily mind Bay expressing a political opinion (even if I happen to disagree with it); I mind that it’s done so ineloquently and done under a hail of gunfire and breathless machismo. The film may seek cover by claiming that it’s really just supporting soldiers, but that claim rings hollow when the director is more interested in gunning down as many sinister-looking brown men as possible instead of showing any nuance or shading to his main characters.
The film follows the CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS), led by Tyrone ‘Rone’ Woods (James Badge Dale) and comprised of contractors Jack Silva (John Krasinski), Kris ‘Tanto’ Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave ‘Boon’ Benton (David Denman), John ‘Tig’ Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), and Mark ‘Oz’ Geist (Max Martini). When the U.S. Diplomatic Outpost gets attacked, Woods pleads with the snooty, egg-headed station chief (David Costabile) to let them mount a rescue mission. With anti-American Libyan forces raining down on them, the GRS team tries to save Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) before retreating back to their base to fend off a siege.
Even if you set aside politics, 13 Hours is just bad storytelling because we don’t invest in the characters beyond the actors’ performances. Dale is commanding as always, but on paper, Woods isn’t a multi-dimensional character and neither are his cohorts. Boon is sniper-guy-who-read-Joseph-Campbell, Tonto is the comic relief, and Tig is the one with glasses. Some of the members of GRS were involved in the making of this film, and I can understand why they wouldn’t want to depict themselves or their friends with any serious foibles. So instead, they’re superheroes, and while I don’t doubt their martial skills, that doesn’t make them interesting.
Bay depicts them as borderline demi-gods, and anyone who doesn’t follow their lead is an empty suit, and that’s where the politics come into play. You can hear Bay’s anti-intellectual sneering in the scene between the caricature of the station chief, who touts the academic resumes of his staff (as one does in normal conversation) to Woods, who should be followed because those Harvard and Yale boys aren’t ready for a real fight. It’s not enough for the GRS team to simply be good at their jobs; they have to point out that the spies—who have a real and important purpose in U.S. defense—are craven careerists unlike the noble military contractors who just want to go home and build tree houses for their wives and 2.5 children.
What makes siege movies like Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 stand the test of time is that we care about the characters under siege. Bay cares more about modern-day Hercules unleashing hell on anyone that gets in their way, and we’re supposed to cheer for flawless people, and never question their actions because we’re so wrapped up in their exhilarating set pieces. A refusal to question something isn’t showing support; that’s blind obedience, and it makes for an unrewarding experience as a viewer if you’re trying to couch your film in realism. There’s already a Captain America, and he’s fictional.
But Bay wants us to take him seriously this time, and yet he lacks the intellectual and moral rigor to make that demand. I’m not trying to write him off because of his past work, and I can accept that those films were trying to meet a different audience. However, what Bay has made with 13 Hours doesn’t live up to his expectations because he reduces everything down to its simplest terms. It’s a world devoid of grey areas and like in his past movies it’s the Americans with guns who should take the lead. That’s amusing when you have cops invading Cuba in Bad Boys II; it’s troubling when you’re using real-life events like in 13 Hours.
At one point in the film, Tonto, a character meant to have the audience’s sympathies since he’s the closest thing we have to comic relief, tells a Libya native and CIA translator, “Your country has to figure this shit out,” completely without irony. Unless there’s a deleted scene where we learn that Tonto has a PhD in Middle Eastern studies and previously worked as a diplomat, he may as well spit in the Libyan character’s face. It’s a view that has no patience for democracy and no empathy for the Libyan people. Although the film does include a title card at the end noting that hundreds of thousands of Libyans mourned for the Americans who died in the Benghazi attack, 13 Hours prefers to takes the view (literally voiced by one of the lead heroes because Bay despises subtlety), “They’re all bad guys until they’re not.”
That’s the world 13 Hours prefers to live in, and it’s one that not only becomes tedious at almost two and a half hours, but increasingly repulsive as the movie carries on. There’s no denying Bay’s skill with action (although his geography at points becomes an utter mess, and not in an intentional, “fog of war”-kind of way), and the movie shows promise at the beginning when it throws a bunch of information at the viewer and expects you to keep up with all the players involved. But eventually that all gets thrown out to where it’s the “good guys against the bad guys.” While those scenarios do occasionally exist, reducing the complicated Benghazi attacks into that framework is a serious error, and hurts everyone—including the secret soldiers Bay intends to celebrate.