Michael Bay’s 13 Hours
Peter Larsen/ Sergi Alexander/ John Parra/ Aaron Davidson/ Mike Windle/ Getty Images
Most reviews get headlined by a starring actor, but when it comes to Michael Bay movies, Michael Bay is the star. The subtext of every Michael Bay movie is that if he wasn’t a director he would undoubtedly be the kind of black ops badass all his movies are about. (Except for Pain & Gain, which is not about black ops badasses and is also his worst movie, bar none.) That is definitely the subtext of his latest movie, 13 Hours, which in some ways is Bay’s “best” movie since The Rock, but in other ways is your typical loud, dumb, overlong Michael Bay celebration of guns, guys, and America. It’s total war porn.
13 Hours is based on the Mitchell Zuckoff book about the paramilitary operators (read: mercenaries) who attempted to rescue Ambassador Chris Stevens when the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya came under attack in 2012. The specter of this event looms large in American politics, especially as it’s an election year and Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of the State at the time, is running for president and there is a rather large portion of the populace who says “Benghazi” like they’re invoking Beetlejuice. I’m not even going to pretend to understand the full scope of what went on in 2012—the one time I typed “What actually happened in Benghazi” into Google my computer spontaneously burst into flame, fueled by the angry comments of a thousand conspiracy theorists.
To say this movie is apolitical is ridiculous—of course it’s political. The whole thing is basically a dog whistle that will play completely differently for people based on political affiliation. And undoubtedly someone will try to spin its underwhelming box office (13 Hours earned an estimated $19 million for the four-day holiday weekend in the US, which puts it in the neighborhood of Pain & Gain, Bay’s only other non-Transformers movie since 2007) as a Hollywood conspiracy against “American values” or some such bullsh*t, but I think it just means that people don’t like Michael Bay movies unless there are robots.
On a very superficial level, 13 Hours does work as an action movie. Bay knows how to do action, and unlike the Transformers movies, 13 Hours doesn’t look like it was shot inside a trash compactor. It actually has a kind of Michael Mann look to it with digital cinematography from Dion Beebe, who lensed two Mann movies, Collateral and Miami Vice. But that is as far as the association goes. If this was a Mann film, everyone would be on the same level and it would be about how they're all under stress and what happens when that pressure cooker inevitably and violently boils over.
But being a Bay movie, 13 Hours instead deifies the mercenaries at the expense of everyone else. The CIA agents—sneeringly identified as Ivy League graduates—are all obstructing bureaucrats who don’t know their asses from their elbows, and the State Department agents assigned to the ambassador, who are also military veterans, are looked down upon for not being as hardcore as the mercenaries. And worse, Ambassador Stevens, by all accounts an experienced and effective diplomat, is treated as a grinning glory boy naively sticking his thumb in the hole in the dam. God forbid anyone in this movie posit that peace is preferable to cowboy violence.
The cast is led by John Krasinski and James Badge Dale, two actors who deserve much better than this. They are both capable of bringing real depth to characters, though, especially Dale who is consistently the best part of bad movies. (Someone write James Badge Dale a movie about a charming thief trying to rob the Louvre. You could build a whole franchise around him stealing stuff around the world. Or cast him as the next Han Solo and not some twenty year old punk.) Because they’re actually good actors, their characters, Jack Silva and Tyrone Woods, respectively, don’t come off as cartoonishly as your average Michael Bay alpha male. But they’re still stuck in a Michael Bay movie, so it’s a net loss. For everyone. But me especially, because I spent money on this.