Neither an exoneration of Hillary Clinton nor a clear explanation of the events of September 11, 2012, which left four Americans dead at the U.S. embassy in Libya’s capital, Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is something political pundits almost never understand: It’s a movie.
Bay focuses on five former military contractors assigned to protect CIA officers at an annex to the U.S. embassy, who eventually fight off marauding Libyan rebels. In these profiles in courage, actors portray real-life figures (some of them former Navy SEALs) Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), and Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini). Bay adds a sixth figure, the fictional Jack Silva (John Krasinski), who joins their muscular elite. He is both “brother” (as the former G.I. Joes address one another) and audience-surrogate.
On these terms, 13 Hours is undeniably superficial — not an explicitly political film or a factual historical account. Action director Bay works “apolitically,” which is a more complicated circumstance than partisan pundits may be willing to comprehend. The economic motivations of Hollywood make it unlikely that a mainstream movie will dare indulge in political controversy. (Remember how Clint Eastwood played both sides of the aisle in American Sniper?) Historical tragedies usually make it to the screen through sentimental pandering, and that is the case with 13 Hours: Action-movie suspense is combined with stereotypical tough-guy heroism.
Even that simplification has its political aspects, although most pundits customarily praise or condemn movies according to what fits their political bias. (Remember how discussions of Zero Dark Thirty ricocheted across both sides of the aisle?) But since many filmgoers are reluctant to consider that all cinema is ideologically loaded (“It’s just a movie!” fanboys insist), 13 Hours can be sold as an “important” action movie without actually saying anything important.
Vague introductory titles assert that Libya’s strongman, Moammar Gaddafi, was “deposed.” In a TV clip, President Obama proclaims the end of a “long and painful chapter for the people of Libya” — conveniently disconnecting U.S. policy from regime change there and setting out Libya’s political chaos as a “turf war” among unspecified factions with American onlookers stuck in the middle.
Bay is not of the Eisenstein, Pontecorvo, or Costa-Gavras politically motivated school that dramatizes ideological cause and effect. Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan avoid depicting the details that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. “We didn’t hear any protests,” one soldier says. “It was on the news,” another responds — conveniently glossing over the Obama administration’s convoluted propaganda war that first blamed the attack on an American-made Islamophobic video. Stevens (portrayed by actor Matt Letscher) is respectfully described as “the real deal, a true believer, here to win hearts and minds.” From that “due diligence” pretense, Bay proceeds to do his ad man’s thing.
In the same way that Bay’s 2001 Pearl Harbor used history for a pseudo-patriotic blockbuster extravaganza, 13 Hours applies an advertising man’s delirium to the depiction of political turmoil. Whatever political-social comment on the Benghazi locale there is in this movie is presented through visual koans: Ambassador Stevens enjoying a large, blue swimming pool, Libyan kids playing on a rusted car hood, rebels shooting holes in an American flag (seen from on high in typical Bay-vision). Adducing these images never leads one to a political assessment. Yet, finally, when the embassy compound is under fire, Bay shifts gears and does a 360 circling of the rainbow-hued siege: An interior shot shows Stevens and staffer Sean Smith fleeing beneath a ceiling of flames. And among the waves of combatants, a video insert of the black ISIS flag can be glimpsed while ammo flashes punctuate the fighting.
How else would Hollywood make a contemporary war movie when our media culture routinely dissociates itself from military purpose and commitment? Since Vietnam, Hollywood always looks at the military with either skepticism or contempt for what it stands for. Bay has inherited this cynicism, but, as an advertising aesthete whose fascination with technology has provoked snotty condescension from liberal critics loath to admit their secret regard for materialism and industry, he exults in the paradox of action-movie extravagance. Bay’s real motivation here is revealed when one soldier says the Libyan raiders are coming from “Zombieland,” and, aiming his weapon, shouts: “I feel like I’m in a fucking horror movie!”
#related#Bay illustrates the excessive violence of war in imagery that recalls Vittorio Mussolini’s infamous poetry describing bombs as “budding roses.” The best scenes in 13 Hours occur when Bay imagines warfare as spectacle. Soldiers caught behind a windshield during a street standoff take point-blank gunfire in a montage that would do Eisenstein or Peckinpah proud. In a rooftop bombardment, a barrage of mortar shells raises sparks that ignite into star-like twinkles — in dazzling real time. The audience I saw the film with was stunned by this, but I swear all Madison Avenue will gasp.
This is the opposite of peacenik imagery — which doesn’t mean Bay is a fascist warmonger, but it makes his appreciation for fighting men’s bravery more convincing than 13 Hours’s superficial characterizations. Bay’s imagery externalizes the men’s stress as it also visualizes wonder, and this works better than the film’s mawkish view of military heroism, which conservative viewers should not fall for too easily. Krasinski’s Silva repeats a passage from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, which he and his post-9/11 fighter buddies read as religiously as soldiers in WWII movies read the Bible: “All the gods, all the hells, all the heavens are within you.” Worse than warmongering, this nods to the nihilism of post–Iraq War films like The Hurt Locker that demonize soldiers as psychopaths. In an after-battle scene, Bay contrasts a bullet-ridden American flag in a ditch with scenes of Libyan women in black reclaiming the bodies of dead jihadis. Like other post–Iraq War Hollywood movies, 13 Hours tries to have it both ways.
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Hollywood often pays “Support Our Troops” lip service to soldiers, but the industry’s real heroes are hustlers, which explains the unfathomable acclaim for The Big Short. Adam McKay’s satire about the 2008 stock-market crash completes an impulse he first showed in an angry animated sequence in The Other Guys. Now he’s gotten sanctimonious: His white-collar cast keeps overexplaining the crash (a “short” is an investment bet that depends upon a stock’s losing value), then sentimentalizes the crooks who should have known better. Steve Carell, who throws off every drama he makes, plays hedge-fund manager Mark Baum, who represents McKay’s obnoxious moral center along with Christian Bale as an autistic Wall Street whiz, Michael Burry.
Clearly, McKay has no real moral compass. His quick-cut visual metaphors, celebrity cameos (Margot Robbie, Richard Thaler, Selena Gomez), inexactitude, and flippancy suggest a disastrously failed Altman panorama. McKay shows no ethics-based approach to greed, only class sarcasm, self-pity, and snide judgment. These narrative tactics combined with inanity show the influence of Michael Moore’s supercilious moralizing.
The Big Short’s superficial cynicism concludes with a Haruki Murakami quote: “Everyone deep in their hearts is waiting for the world to end.” McKay is so smug in his self-righteousness (typical liberal arrogance) that he lacks a genuine sense of tragedy. The chatter, the explanations, the cartoon doodles and celebrity asides are nonstop and tedious. McKay can’t even resist interrupting Mark Baum’s grandstanding mea culpa with another narrative tangent. When not sarcastic, McKay is maudlin, with no capacity for empathy. “All the people I respected won’t talk to me anymore except through lawyers,” Baum says. That’s modern Hollywood in a nutshell. No wonder The Big Short has gotten five Oscar nominations.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.