Michael Bay might be a corrosive, destructive influence on our national character—there are times in his movies in which I have legitimately wondered if he is actively providing aid and comfort to America’s enemies—but you don’t get to such a rarified perch without having some talent. The guy can knock you around, for better or, almost always, worse. His college professor, film historian Janine Basinger, has said, “Michael is actually an abstract artist in the way he uses time, space, light, and color. He’s almost an experimental filmmaker in that regard. He uses the medium in the fastest, sharpest way that it can be used.” This is not nothing. After Transformers 3, in which the city of Chicago is leveled by space robots for roughly 45 minutes in the loudest, most brain-clangingly way imaginable, I found myself staggering down the street outside the theater afterward, nearly lurching into traffic a couple of times. It took me a good hour just to readjust to the physical world again. It was an awful feeling—god, reader, it was just awful—but it was a feeling.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a “serious” movie for Michael Bay, and I can say with total certainty that it is light years better than his last “serious” movie, Pearl Harbor, from 2001, which Roger Ebert famously said was “aimed at an audience that may not have heard of Pearl Harbor, or perhaps even of World War II.” I wouldn’t say that Bay has matured so much as he has, to his credit, excised his worst instincts out of the process. This story of the notorious 2012 raid of an American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya and the firefight that resulted doesn’t have any fart jokes, “jive”-talking robots, or Bay’s most indulgent and infantile bailiwick, lingering bikini shots of women running in slow motion. (13 Hours hardly passes the Bechdel test, however. There are two women in this movie with speaking roles, and while they’re both fully clothed throughout, you still can’t stop Bay from wanting to be Bay.) It is, in its way, as straightforward a movie as he’s capable of making, a pseudo-tick-tock procedural about what went wrong that day in Libya, and how six men attempted to make a stand. It’s his war movie, and not even Michael Bay can get Megan Fox into a war movie.
This is still a Michael Bay movie, though, and at times that’s not even that bad of a thing. Bay may lack interest in basic story construction—even with chryons telling us what time it is, I still couldn’t tell when the 13 Hours of the title actually begin or end— or coherent battle scenes, but the guy has a preternatural skill at evoking sensation. Your synapses will fire the same way in 13 Hours as they did for Transformers, and that one can feel the same sensation in a movie about the death of American soldiers as one could for a movie about Optimus Prime is perhaps everything that needs to be said about Bay. Recorded events and real-life characters really do serve to tamp down his worst instincts. While the events surrounding Benghazi are certainly charged politically, in narrative structure they’re really not all that different than a bunker story: The first hour of the movie builds a world, and the second traps our heroes in it to fend off the invading hordes. This might not always make for the most expansive canvas on which to paint, but it does make sure Bay doesn’t go too far afield. There isn’t much room for tomfoolery, Bay just has to do what Bay does best: shoot the shit out of everything.
And that he does, to occasionally effective results. None of the “secret soldiers” in the film—members of a private security firm, never officially recognized by the government for their role in the firefight—are particularly interesting, but they’re still all solidly played in an inoffensive and likable way. We find ourselves rooting for them, which is enough, because Bay convincingly throws them into Hell. It’s here that Bay’s relative incuriosity about politics works to his advantage: These soldiers-for-hire have no idea where they are, what they’re fighting for, or what they’re even doing there in the first place. Bay doesn’t bring in much about the political context of Benghazi—there are a few moments when the failure of the government is obliquely referred to, but no one says the word “Clinton.” Bay’s understanding of the conflict in Libya is a simplistic “us versus them,” and in a perverse way this works to the film’s benefit. These almost entirely white, huskily bearded men don’t know who these random people are who keep entering the battlefield. Are we supposed to shoot them? Are they here to help? Our heroes can’t tell, and neither can the audience, which is at times frustrating, but also at times vividly terrifying—a nightmare with no logic.
Bay is an abstract artist of sorts, and while it makes his films impossible to follow, there is a visceral, nightmarish quality to his battle scenes that is hard to shake off. That this is what the soldiers were going through gives the film an almost accidental power: You’ll feel their disorientation, even if it’s an entirely different sort of disorientation all together. The movie is jingoistic and hackeneyed and displays Bay’s total disinterest in any culture other than his own—the movie’s moral thesis isn’t much deeper than an empty “Support The Troops” video they’d play before a football game—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Bay doesn’t want you to think much about Benghazi, or Hillary Clinton, or the American government, or the Middle East, or the mindset of the men who fight in our wars for us for reasons they consciously do not understand, because he hasn’t thought much about it. He just does Michael Bay. And while Michael Bay hasn’t become a better filmmaker, he has become more like himself: crude, loud, boorish and gifted with an unlikely, undeniable, almost primal power.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site