Michael Bay, auteur of shambolic carnage, strikes again

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a simultaneously gritted-up and impossibly slick portrayal of modern warfare.

Michael Bay
Michael Bay on the set of Transformers: Age of Exctinction

Let me say this about Michael Bay: no one will ever accuse him of doing things half-assedly. There’s a lot wrong with his films, all of which share the same sort of overstimulated, overlong and exhausting aesthetic of more-is-more. You pretty much always know what you’re in for with Bay, which is why I find his recent choice of projects perplexing: they don’t necessarily seem like a natural fit. Bay dubbed Pain & Gain his Pulp Fiction while he was making it and delivered a strident (though admittedly propulsive) one-note black comedy; he had similarly lofty ideals when promoting 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, an ostensibly Zero Dark Thirty-style recounting of the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Bay is not a man of nuance, so of course he spent the entirety of a long, fawning Rolling Stone piece claiming that he was a man of nuance. Then again, the actual story of Benghazi could benefit from a lack of nuance, clusterfuck that it was, but Bay is predictably not the man best suited for the job.

Reeling from the crash of the real estate market that’s he’s recently made his profession, former military man Jack Silva (John Krasinski) accepts a contract job with the U.S. military in recently liberated Libya. Working alongside his old pal Rone (James Badge Dale) and a bunch of other bearded white guys from TV shows you may or may not watch (Pablo Schreiber of Orange Is the New Black, Dominic Fumusa of Nurse Jackie, David Denman of The Office and Max Martini of The Unit), he’s tasked with protecting the U.S. ambassador (Matt Letscher) from roving bands of militants and other unfriendly Libyans stirring up trouble in a post-Gaddafi world. The ambassador requests to stay in a palatial compound that’s impossible to protect with so many men, but the boss (David Costabile) insists that they go through with it. What follows is a 13-hour siege in which the men, outnumbered and stuck in less than desirable conditions, painstakingly fight off what seems like an endless stream of militias.

13 Hours
John Krasinski in 13 Hours

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi subscribes to the Michael Bay formula of 40 minutes of corny bullshit followed by two hours of dizzying action sequences. Bay sets up the characters (which, apart from Krasinski, are fairly hard to tell apart in their sunburned, red-bearded glory) through the most well-trod means imaginable: pictures of children (when one character is inevitably killed in an explosion, the charred picture of his wife and child is seen floating through the rubble, pausing briefly before the lens to make sure we saw), Skype conversations with the family back home, tossed-off Joseph Campbell quotes and a scene of Schreiber dancing around to LMFAO. Granted, more talented directors than Bay have also struggled with the shorthand of war films, but the script does the film no favours by asking the audience to invest in such cardboard cutouts. The performances are actually pretty decent across the board once you get over the somewhat-stunty casting (Breaking Bad’s Gale as an avuncular, Giamatti-esque suit?) but there’s only so much they can do when they feel trapped inside the cutscenes of a videogame.

But feelings are really only a minor, inconsequential part of the Michael Bay oeuvre; action is what he does and action is what he delivers. There’s certainly a nerve-wracking film to be made from the carnage and constant uncertainty that the men faced in this situation, but there’s also a variation on Bad Boys to be made — guess which one Bay settled for. He pulls out every trick in the book to power through the considerable amount of carnage contained here: schizophrenic editing, first-person perspective, night vision sequences, one shot given from the perspective of a rocket being launched… No stone is left unturned in Bay’s simultaneously gritted-up and impossibly slick attempt at portraying modern warfare. Thing is, long swaths of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi are virtually indistinguishable from any other films in Bay’s oeuvre, whether they be about robots tearing each other up or Will Smith and Martin Lawrence crashing a speedboat through a skyscraper. If nothing else, 13 Hours makes a serious case for Bay as a legitimate auteur of shambolic carnage.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is many things, but the most surprising of them is that even at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it’s rarely boring. It’s exhausting and corny and generally not that great of a time, to be sure, but it’s not boring. It’s even only sort of jingoistic; sure, it spends most of the movie painting the attackers as a faceless horde and it derives what little comic relief it has from a hapless interpreter character whose lack of tactical savvy is seen as but-busting, but compared to ooh-rah spirit present in a lot of war movies (and, to be fair, this isn’t a “war” movie in the traditional sense of the term), this feels downright restrained. Praising a Michael Bay movie for being slightly less intolerable than expected might seem like a backhanded compliment, but if nothing else, 13 Hours proves that Bay’s reputation as an incompetent director is undeserved. Bay knows exactly what he’s doing; he just shouldn’t be doing it to this story. ■

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi opens in theatres on Friday, Jan. 15. Watch the trailer here: