Since 2007, Michael Bay has more or less devoted himself to the Transformers franchise. While that has undoubtedly produced some original moments – especially Transformers 2 – it’s tended to whittle away some of the flourishes that made his earlier films so charismatic and striking. With the franchise set to continue indefinitely, it’s hard to know when or how Bay will return to full-time work on other features, but the good news is that his Transformers output seems to have freed him up for considerable originality when it comes to his side projects. Joining Pain and Gain as one of the most original and self-reflexive films of Bay’s career, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is – as the title suggests – his reconstruction of the Benghazi attacks in 2012, told primarily from the perspective of the independent contractors who were responsible for defending the U.S. compound in Libya.
From the very outset, it’s clear that 13 Hours is ambitious in a new kind of way for Bay. Not only does it clock in at close to three hours, but the opening promises a political allegory of global proportions, as Bay opens with a series of satellite images immediately followed by a propulsion of air jets and science-fiction imagery that has more in common with Armageddon than any of his more recent films. By the time the opening credits have brought us to the U.S. compound – not quite an embassy or consulate at this stage – in Benghazi, it feels as if we have arrived at an American base on another planet, and that the drama that is about to unfold will have galactic implications. At the same time, these opening images pave the way for a narrative in which surveillance – and aerial surveillance, or at least the illusion of aerial surveillance – is the main weapon left in the American arsenal, making for a war film in which action is continually subordinated to vision, and most of the main characters are left debilitated, at one point or another, by their efforts to visually comprehend and compute what lies in front of them. That sense of an overwhelming and emasculating visual field also contributes to the sense that this is Bay’s definitive 9/11 movie – the attacks, after all, were designed to coincide with the anniversary of September 11 – with all the anxiety that entails, as well as the lack of proper closure a decade down the track.
It’s perhaps not surprising then, that from the very opening sequence – which depicts contractor Jack Silver (John Krasinski) arriving by plane, surrounded entirely by Muslims – this is one of the most anxious and paranoid films in Bay’s entire filmography. Utterly distrustful of anything resembling bureaucracy, government or diplomacy, only the special ops contractors are invested with anything resembling integrity, if only because they know how and when to go off the grid or break the chain of command, setting macho know-how against the “professionalism” of a military-political apparatus that the film has no gripes with blaming for the attack in the first place. Intelligence officers, in particular, are emasculated and effeminised, so it’s no surprise that Bay dwells on Gaddafi’s all-female private security detail, since women are so foreign to these American contractors that they might as well be the enemy. Accordingly, the only female contractor is an incompetent blonde operative who’s pretty much a cipher for Hillary Clinton, and whose role is summarised by the instructions barked at her by one of the other American soldiers: “Put your head scarf on – I need your eyes and your ears, not your mouth.” Here, as at so many other points throughout the film, it almost feels as if Bay has a grudging respect for the ultra-masculine dicta of conservative Islam, or at least regards them as a direct threat to American masculinity to which he and the film have to respond in kind.
As a result, the Muslim insurgents are caricatured first and foremost as a threat to Bay’s particular brand of masculinity – alpha males with beards who require the corrective and combative presence of even greater alpha males with bigger beards – producing some of the most ludicrous dialogue in Bay’s entire career, dialogue so terrible that it initially threatens to drown out everything else. At first, that plays as a Republican advertisement for the military, pitched exclusively at the American heartland with little interest in the crossover appeal of Bay’s earlier features, but after a while the endless array of guns, cars and tall, rippling torsos feels more like a Jim Beam ad for frathouse alpha-jocks. At these moments, 13 Hours feels more about the decline of bro culture than about one of the biggest catastrophes in recent American diplomacy, as Bay subsumes a crisis in foreign policy into a crisis in fatherhood, and a copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myths covertly circulates amongst the contractors, leading to a series of unbearably sanctimonious and cringeworthy Skype conversations with wives and daughters back home.
My own ideological biases aside, this tendency really infantilises and trivialises the film in these opening scenes, making it all feel a bit silly, or as if it’s pitched at 13-year old boys, since there’s something inherently absurd about the sheer extent of this testosterone-soaked atmosphere and competitive banter. Nowhere is that clear than in the endless depictions and discussions of facial hair – I’ve never seen a film in which beards are so front and centre – which run the risk of lapsing over into comedy before the serious matter has even begun. To the film’s credit, there is some acknowledgment of that, not merely in the sheer fact of John Krasinski (who I simply don’t buy in this kind of role), but David Denman, who played his romantic rival in the US version of The Office. Add to that the presence of Freddie Stroma, who played the romantic lead in the first season of UnREAL, and there’s a tacit sense in which 13 Soldiers acknowledges its continuity with more camp and comic forms of attachment. Nevertheless, even that awareness doesn’t fully rescue the dialogue, and often made me long to see how this story might have looked if Kathryn Bigelow had been assigned to direct it, since much of this opening act plays as a diluted version of the extraordinary visions of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.
Nevertheless, as the film proceeds, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is something desperate – and compelling – about the sheer amount of testosterone on display. For a director who was once the self-appointed poet of the American military-industrial complex, it’s clear that Bay has no real faith in the system any more, and not much faith in this particular story, whose ending feels inexorably present from the very first scene. After all, even the most extravagant bravado can’t hide the fact that the United States failed in this particular case, rendering the consolatory fantasies of the traditional action or siege film impossible, and unleashing a swathe of unsatisfied testosterone that has no particular place to land. In the process, Benghazi itself feels relegated to a series of bad dreams and half-muffled hallucinations, creating a mounting chaos, confusion and dispersed disarray that turns the terrorist attack into a foregone conclusion, removing it to the remote past before the first shots are fired. In other words, 13 Hours is suffused with a sense of lateness, or belatedness, that distends the thirteen hours of the attack into one of the longest, dreamiest and most accomplished sequences in Bay’s career.
Ostensibly, of course, this attack plays like a siege – that’s how the film was advertised and marketed – but the spaces within the American compound are too porous, and the outside world too diffuse, to create anything resembling the clearly demarcated zones and compartmentalised spaces of, say, The Rock, which feels like the spiritual forebear of 13 Hours. In fact, the compound only has the notional of perimeters to begin with, while it’s impossible to distinguish local militia from the US-friendly February 17 faction. If that weren’t enough, the surrounding city has barely ceased to be a war zone anyway, while the exact balance of power within Benghazi seems to change from moment to moment, with what little information the soldiers can glean coming from distorted and intercepted news broadcasts back home. The result is a disorienting, destabilising kind of space – agoraphobic and claustrophobic at the same time – that can only really be captured through the kind of post-continuity that Bay has made his own, and which is so extravagantly and flamboyantly on display here. Far from solidifying into a unique event, the attack just segues the American contractors back into the wider war zone that is Benghazi, reducing them to just another local flashpoint in an ongoing, decentred conflict that they were supposedly brought in to manage in the first place. Greeted by the locals with violence, oblivion and indifference in equal measure as the attack escalates, they’re divested of even the most residual overtones of US protectionism or exceptionalism and forced to fight within the city as citizens of the city, in the only film in Bay’s career that never takes a step onto U.S. soil.
While that disorientation peaks in a series of conservative hallucinations – especially the primal image of hordes of Muslims traversing US thresholds – it’s most spectacular during down time, most notably the extended period of waiting that occupies most of the third act of the film. In an extraordinary extended sequence, the contractors patrolling the top of the compound try to make sense of all the incidental events taking place in the dead of night while waiting for the next wave of attacks to arrive. Cars amass and disperse, a couple of shepherds wander through the fields, a local cautions the compound to turn off its lights and – most eerily – a lone police car slows at the gate and moves on again, as Bay imbues the city with a kind of opaque openness that recalls the debilitating choices poised by the unlimited sandbox spaces of first-person war games. Indeed, when one of the contractor observes that “in Iraq we had Black Ops to get us out of stuff like this,” it’s unclear whether he’s referring to the game or the team, although in both cases the effect is to cement 13 Hours as a post-Iraq film, as evinced in the absence of any discrete or single battlefield. Subsumed into an environment in which all distinction between peace and conflict has utterly collapsed (“Everyone has weapons in Benghazi. Until you see a weapon in someone’s hands you do not fire,”), this stunning sequence doesn’t really feel like a war film, at least as we know them. Instead, Bay unfolds an uncanny, eerie and emergent ambience that recaptures war as a genuinely alien experience.
Against that kind of backdrop, meaningful and intention action becomes impossible, and while surveillance may not be perfect either, it’s about all that the Americans have to fall fall back upon, just as Bay himself falls back upon a variety of perceptual augmentations to tell the story. In particular, his drones feel like military devices as much as cinematographic devices, perfect vehicles for a film that I suddenly and retrospectively realised had been mainly preoccupied with contractors watching and waiting as one surreal spectacle unfolds after another, confined to the debilitated and impotent sight so typical of horror films as they gaze out across the obscure waste that they dub “Zombieland” in search of an enemy so inscrutable and diffuse that it barely feels human. It’s during these scenes that the length of the film really feels necessary to capture the sheer scale of the chaos and confusion – a night that seems to go on forever – as well as the defeatism and fatalism creeping in beneath it all. By the end, there is something almost Hadean about this waiting, which feels as if it must be complemented by a proptionately visceral action sequence that never really comes. As if awaiting the inexorable end of the United States itself, the soldiers become more introspective, cryptic and withdrawn, leaving behind their macho aphorisms for an awareness of vulnerability that is virtually unprecedented in Bay’s career: “Dawn is the worst isn’t it? The adrenalin leaves and your mind just starts to wander.”
Above and beyond Bay’s critiques of American bureaucracy – both in preparing and responding to the attack – these last minutes strike a more apocalyptic and existential tone, as his lens flares become more pronounced and everyone is estranged from even the most familiar or domestic sentiments. It feels right, then, that there is no real climactic battle sequence, just an intensification of chaos that starts to resemble the fractallated landscapes of Transformers 2, against which it’s only a matter of time before the leader of the contractors is hit, leaving his team to mourn the battle before it has even begun or ended in any discernible way, and leaving nothing for Krasinski’s character but a howl of pent-up rage
During these final stunning moments, 13 Hours plays like Bay glimpsing something inherently impotent at the heart of the hyper-masculine aesthetic, a kind of reckoning with his career before he departs for the pure fantasy of the Transformers franchise once again. Finally collapsing in on itself, the by-the-numbers brospeak that has tried so desperately to buoy up the film is unable to command a definitive final statement, just hysterical tears of joy upon discovering that the final convoy of Libyan soldiers to approach the compound happens to be those of 17 Feb rather than more insurgents. Devoid of any final or emphatic declaration of U.S. supremacy, or of the glory of her military, all that remains is inextricability and compromise. For all that the film ends with the soldiers preparing to go home, then, home feels as much of an impossibility as it did in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which sits naturally alongside 13 Hours in its late Republican revisionism. Although these contractors have fought for the United States, the very fact of fighting seems to remove their homeland even further, until it’s barely a notional entity, a free-floating concept hovering away somewhere above the Benghazi tarmac as they prepare to board the plane for a destination that Bay, for the first time in his career, seems unable or unwilling to directly represent.