Back when I was an idiot teenager who thought he knew everything about movies, I fell into the trap of believing Michael Bay to be the worst director working in the pictures. His last two films (Pain & Gain, and this year’s 13 Hours) proves how wrong I truly was. And though it is much too early for this to mean anything, a Michael Bay movie is now my favourite film of the year.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi covers the 2012 attacks on a U.S. embassy and a CIA compound in Benghazi, Libya. Four people were killed in the attacks, including the first ambassador to die in the line of duty since 1979. The attacks came in the aftermath of a civil war that arose after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi and his decades long dictatorship. Needless to say, it was a messy, chaotic situation, and the strength of Bay’s film is how he captures this sense of chaos through his particular brand of cinema.
Bay has often been criticized for his excessive camera movements and incomprehensible editing, but here, these qualities work to the film’s benefit. As the situation in Benghazi deteriorates, the camera’s mobility, and the frenetic pacing of the cuts, help ground us in the action. The wonder of 13 Hours however, is that Bay never glorifies this violence. It is always messy and it is always tragic. We are even allowed to mourn the insurgents vicariously through their grieving relatives. Bay does run into a spot of trouble towards the end of the conflict, as he suddenly shifts from the grounded reality of the fighting in order to follow a mortar from launch to landing. It’s a great shot, but it is somewhat outside the bounds of the established language of the film which is the air of tragedy surrounding the whole event. Luckily, the final shot of the film (not including the epilogue) eschews Bay’s noted jingoism by placing the United States’ flag in tatters, left languid in a pool. There is no defiance or honour in that shot, just a sad reflection of a terrible clusterfuck.
In fact, Bay steers nearly completely clear of his fetish for ‘Murica, instead indulging in his love of big, burly, manly men. To be fair, this a story about the quiet nobility of the soldiers who lend their lives in order to keep the geeks and wimps like me safe. These two aspects of Bay’s character seem to converge when one of his characters states his pride in knowing “Americans like [the soldiers]”. It is a dissonant moment, as the movie has generally avoided this sort of patriotic speech.
With this and Pain & Gain before it, Bay has proven that when he cares about the topic, and when he is truly engaged in the material, he is as good as anybody. 13 Hours may not remain my favourite movie of 2016 for long, but it is a damn good film from a visual master, and for now, that’s enough.