Let’s start by stating the obvious: The world needed a Michael Bay Benghazi movie like it needed a hole in its ice cap. That being said, it’s a strange thing that it took the ultimate political football to inspire an inveterate pornographer like Bay to make his least propagandistic movie. Who knew it would take a polarized event for him to discover nuance? Well, nuance for Michael Bay, anyway. There are still countless shots of Old Glory fwapping sexily in the breeze (then a later one of it floating bullet-riddled, in the pool of a burned out diplomatic outpost – SYMBOLISM). Characters still growl things like “You’re in my world now,” “Sh*t just got real,” and “Yay, McDonald’s!” (Not making these up, I swear.) Buffed-up dudes still commit courageous acts, selflessly, shirtlessly, while fingering wedding rings and caressing pictures of their beautiful wives, who bravely await their husbands’ return while not interfering with the story.
Yet for all the signature Bayisms, about the worst thing you can say about 13 Hours is that it’s really long (about two and a half hours). I expected corny ridiculousness, and instead I got an extended firefight that went heavy on the beard porn but relatively light on the xenophobia. It’s a movie that, all things being equal, is probably less corny and ridiculous than Lone Survivor or American Sniper. It’s impossible to discount expectations, and with mainstream presidential candidates currently going full Bill the Butcher with their anti-immigrant fear mongering, the last thing the world needs is a movie about courageous American heroes bravely mowing down hordes of faceless, bloodthirsty furreigners. In that context, the news that Michael Bay was directing the story of an angry mob murdering an ambassador put palm to forehead faster than you can say “libtard.” (I’m very excited about some of the inevitable comments on this post, lemme tell ya.)
But war does strange things to people, and war movies do strange things to directors. Where normally even-keeled storytellers like Peter Berg and Clint Eastwood wrap themselves in the flag and start spewing clichés, the ultimate flag-pimping cliché spewer Michael Bay turns inward. As the subtitle,”The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” might suggest, the focus in 13 Hours is firmly on the gang of mercenary ex-special forces guys, contracted by the CIA to provide security for a base that wasn’t supposed to be there, and later the ambassador, who wasn’t supposed to travel with such light security. While most of the Benghazi hearings focused on what happened at the top — who screwed up which planning, whether the president said which magic words when — Bay just leaves all of that out. It’s stuff for the poindexters and nerdlingers to argue over while the real men shoot guns and go home and f*ck the prom queen. There may have been a few dog-whistle moments that I missed on account of I don’t speak the language of right-wing email forwards, but for the most part 13 Hours is all about the dudes on the ground, the buff, bearded, super soldiers Michael Bay totally would’ve been one of if he hadn’t gone into directing lingerie commercials instead.
It works, though, because while it’s easy to argue politics, it’s hard to argue that the individuals depicted here don’t deserve to be memorialized. And truthfully, I hadn’t considered that until Michael Bay convinced me that they do. F*ckin’ A, well done, Michael Bay, imagine that.
13 Hours also isn’t so much “GRR, AMERICA!” as it is a fairly universal depiction of the feeling of being stuck out on a limb in a chaotic situation. The dominant conflict isn’t “Bad guys! Shoot ’em!” but the frustration of not knowing who the bad guys are. That’s much more compelling, and again, shocking coming from a guy who famously made “half a B” on “Bad guys! Shoot ’em!”
Here, Bay simply sells the terror and the tension inherent in being surrounded by people carrying guns and not being able to know who’s trying to kill you until they start shooting. You could also make a fairly convincing case that the Libyans aren’t depicted as scary and bad, but simply as people dealing with a really f*cked up and chaotic situation. After 20 years of infuriatingly terrible tertiary characters in Michael Bay movies (think: the catch-phrase spouting trolley driver in The Rock, the clerk who really loved Stryper in Pain & Gain, etc.), he gives us a comic relief character in 13 Hours who is… actually successful. It’s a sheep farmer (the CIA compound is behind a slaughterhouse) who sits near his flock watching soccer on satellite TV, calmly waving to the soldiers even as they take small arms fire. The implication: the Libyan populace is disturbingly comfortable living in a war zone. A comic relief character that’s funny, and means something? Who is this director and what did he do with the guy who gave us Mudflap and Skids and Megan Fox’s tit sweat?
Luckily the good guys are still sexy and buff (and white and American), so it’s not entirely outside Bay’s wheelhouse. 13 Hours’ politics, such as they are, could mostly be described as vaguely isolationist, moderately anti-bureaucrat, and strongly pro meathead. In the past I’ve described Michael Bay as seeing the world through the lens of “slut or clown,” where every character exists either to be jacked off to or laughed at (the Megan Fox/Anthony Anderson corollary). But in 13 Hours, it’s more like “beefcake or pussy.” And even the whiniest pussies pull some pretty beefcake moves by the end. Again, in the Bay universe, this is considered nuance. There’s also a weird recurring line from Joseph Campbell that the characters keep requoting: “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells; are within you.”
What does it mean? Is 13 Hours trying to tell us something, quoting the author of The Power of Myth in a based-on-a-true story movie? Is it simply a reference to “the hero’s journey”… because these guys are heroes, and they’re on a journey? I’m assuming the latter, or maybe Michael Bay has just been reading Joseph Campbell lately. The simplest explanation is usually the best with Bay, the man uses Occam’s razor to shave his chest.
The strangest decision Bay makes in the whole movie was casting both of Pam Beesly’s love interests from The Office (David Denman and John Krasinski) as heroes. It gives the whole thing a very “Pam’s Boyfriends Vs. Islamic militants” feel. By the way, two guys bonding over their mutual mystification with women before going off to kill bad guys would be the ultimate Michael Bay script.
“Chicks. You said it.”
“Can’t live with ’em, can’t kill ’em!”
“Ha ha! Ain’t that the truth! You said it, man.” (*back slapping*)
“It’s like, workin’ hard, or hardly workin, right, bro?”
“LET’S GO KILL SOME TERRORISTS!”
Anyway, it’s easy to find fault with the stories Michael Bay isn’t telling here — basically anything from non-white, non-American perspective. But in terms of the one he is, he tells it pretty well, actually. 13 Hours is Michael Bay’s best by a mile. Which is to say, it isn’t half bad.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.