I admire Michael Bay as a director, I really do. He is a filmmaker without guile, his images transparent in their vapid grandiloquence. The qualities and values of maximalism, crassness, and jingoism that have consistently garnered mockery and acrimonious distain by many are not ones audiences are cleverly exposing, but most often are simply accurate characterizations of the attitudes such films as the two Bad Boys, Pearl Harbor, and his solely-helmed Transformers franchise directly espouse. It may be hard to imagine a film more gaudily self-evident in its values and the force of its aesthetics than the sprawling special effects goliath and anti-humanist Transformers: Age of Extinction, but in fact Bay’s most tidily budgeted and CGI-free films of recent years, 2013’s true crime Pain & Gain and this year’s true war 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, are his most honest and perceptive, and, because of this, his best.
Based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s book about the central importance of CIA contractors in the 2012 terrorist attack in Libya on, first, an American diplomatic compound—resulting the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens—and, second, on a covert CIA compound, 13 Hours confirms the fact that Bay is not precisely the pro-military filmmaker his four Transformers films have broadly branded him to be. Rather, in its celebration not of the official American Diplomatic Security Service presence in Benghazi (underpopulated, undertrained, and smarmy), nor of the CIA itself (variously nebbish, muddling, disdainful white-collar management), but instead by celebrating the ex-military hired contractors (beefy, bearded, pseudo-working class men’s men), Bay finds the real world embodiment, as he did in Pain & Gain, of his glamorous fantasies of American myth-making vigilantism.
Officialdom can rarely, if ever, get the job done in Bay's America, especially lately. These films espouse contempt for just about anyone in an elevated position whether corporate boss or military superior, and it is only those willing to flagrantly break the rules with force who get the job done. Whether this involves getting an ex-con to stop the ex-military in The Rock, Miami cops going rogue and invading Haiti in Bad Boys II, following a boy drafted by alien robots (rather than the Army) to fight evil in the first three Transformers, or the muscle-clad trio trying to get rich quick in Pain & Gain, this is a cinema that celebrates the jerks brazen enough, smug enough, and self-involved enough to break all the rules and many laws–of the land, of common decency, and of morality—that it takes to save the world.
So perhaps the central reason why Pain & Gain remains the director’s best film is that the motivation of its jerks is amoral greed, their methods unabashedly criminal, and their results gloriously, absurdly disturbing. It’s the film whose values most closely align with those of its characters; by comparison, the faux-Spielbergian naif of Bay’s well-meaning romantic heroes in Pearl Harbor, The Island, and the Transformers movies are little but muscular-skinned pudding pops because of the unresolved conflict between their unremarkable, presumed goodness and the often outrageous things they end up doing in these pictures. The gesticulating vulgarity and pouty daftness of Bay’s male and female secondary characters, in their acrid, often glee- and hateful caricature, only serves to showcase how ill-fitting and often shrill these milquetoast quasi-beefcakes are in the roles of Michael Bay’s heroes. Which is why what dramatic electricity is conducted in Bay’s films bristles through the charisma of the rude and entitled, like the endearingly stupid gym rat criminal buffoons of Pain & Gain and the only-talent-in-town “secret soldiers” (e.g., military contractors) of 13 Hours.
For whatever reason, it wasn't until 2013 that Bay finally told the story of men as unabashedly, nakedly devoted to the kind of outrageous, offensive lifestyle favored by his films. The Bad Boys series flirted with such egregious flagrancy, but it always felt excused by its post-Miami Vice fantasy of playboy-vigilante cops. What Bay failed to understand in those two films was that watching the privileged act gratuitously entitled is hardly satisfying unless there's some underlying satire. (The fact the two privileged and entitled heroes of those movies are African-American is as unusual as it is remarkable and may, in fact, be taken as ominous satire.) By re-orienting his love for the entitled rule-breakers of America to the aspiring working class entrepreneurs of Pain & Gain, Bay suddenly makes their myriad law-breaking extravagances seem like a fight for something, even if the fight is truly atrocious and that something is completely misguided. This feeling is compounded by the knowledge, terrifying but true, that these Miami kidnappers, torturers, and murderers are real people and the film recreates their milieu and sins. That they were horrible people and the film admires and glamorizes their horribleness with a potent empathy makes for one of the decade's most fierce, abrasive satires and critiques of American culture, lifestyle, and aspiration.
This alignment of gross maximalist grandeur with real world persons, deeds, and ideology feels most pointed when those persons are well-acknowledged villains of ribald foolishness and many a blood-trail. The waters get far more muddied in 13 Hours, which treats its real world protagonists as heroes in an enterprise not nearly as directly criminal as those in Pain & Gain, and which is at heart a tale of effective American military might. The fitness maniacs of the 2013 picture are queasily endearing—particularly Dwayne Johnson's performance—in their comic book planning and cartoonish bloodletting. They warrant Bay's obscene portraiture because they embody the absolute worst of what this director's cinema values in American culture. The picture comes tantalizingly close to auto-critique from Michael Bay: "this is what I love, isn't it horrible and ridiculous? How much of our country do you recognize?" But in his 2016 action movie this self-reflection has nearly evaporated; the semi-authorized mercenaries of 13 Hours are shown to be among the world's few amazing, just people, and they do amazing, just things; namely, mowing down the unidentified enemy.
Yet as its title attests, up until a small explosion of American deaths at the movie's climax, the main grievance its military contractors seem to have during the hellish half-day of combat they so clearly have longed for is that they’re tired; they’ve been fighting too long. Variously chewing up and picking off attack after attack of presumed Islamic terrorists—in a two-part, two-compound siege vocally described in the film as both an “Alamo” and a “horror movie” and additionally resembling the "wave" gameplay mode common to many contemporary first-person shooter video games—the small handful of elite mercenaries wrack up an extraordinary kill count, and mostly just seem weary at the intense workload. Meanwhile, the principle State Department fighter is a mustachioed phony (another notably proves and thereby redeems himself to his mercenary betters), and the CIA, protected in their compound by the contractors, are flinchy, condescending, and non-committal. The message is clear: if these mercenaries had been in charge of protecting the "Ambo," his death would have been prevented. And perhaps: if such mercenaries were in charge of the American military, America—and perhaps the world—would be safer.
(It may be interesting to note here that two of the six elite mercenaries are played by actors who previously starred in the NBC version of The Office, John Krasinski and David Denman, and indeed played romantic rivals across the white- and blue-collar border in the show between the office and warehouse workers of a failing paper company. It is curious to consider whether their roles in 13 Hours serve as corrections to or continuations of their troubles on the show. Also of interest, Krasinski's man has a dead-eyed stare of apathy and disinterest that I think we're supposed to find more empathetic than the other five men's undifferentiated combat-eager, gung-ho attitude, but instead his aspect serves to suggest an existential and spiritual dead-end to the self-given moral authority and might wielded by him and his crew. His soul-bruised aura is the closest the film gets to the kind of self-awareness in which Pain & Gain is slathered.)
Coming from the world of advertising, Bay has always been one of cinema’s supreme colorists, where the power of the image comes from his chroma-bleeding, glamour-swathe compositions conjoined through abrupt, mind-befuddling editing. This style when torqued to glorify violent “true stories”—leaving aside his grandiose action romance for Jerry Bruckheimer, Pearl Harbor—feels like it is finding its most honest expression, trespassing in the dangerous territory of real world events, people, and values that can hardly be written off as moronic-adolescent fantasy. It is in Pain & Gain and 13 Hours that Michael Bay gets closest to the cinema of fellow Hollywood showman Cecil B. DeMille, which not only did little to hide its moralizing but also did not try to hide its paradoxical hedonism, dressed in the satisfaction of extreme spectacle.
While Black Hawk Down is also vocally referenced by 13 Hours, the thrills of Bay's picture are not in the remarkable tactical perspicacity of American soldiers and the taut, helter-skelter fragmentation of the landscape that Ridley Scott expands upon in that now-iconic 2001 film. Rather, it is the look, sound, and attitude of the untiring, undaunted killing of attackers by American mercenaries that fuels the fire in 13 Hours—and over-exhausts it in a supremely dull final stretch of waiting and killing until our heroes' charge is finally rescued by the contemptuously lagging and ineffective response of the American military.
As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has pointed out, in 13 Hours Michael Bay seems to be aiming for the terse authenticity of Michael Mann’s cinema, enabled and ennobled by the genius of the digital cinematography by Dion Beebe (who shot Mann’s Collateral and Miami Vice). Just as the lean budget of Pain & Gain lent that film a hyper-dextrous energy in its unexpected affection for its dopey scumbag heroes, 13 Hours, in its obsession with “technicals,” the look, sound, and variety of military gear, weapons, and their fire effects, provides Beebe a palette with which to spit white flecks of tracers, paint the sprawling ambient glow of out-of-sight Arab life surrounding the combat zone, sketch a myriad amped-up bearded bros, glimpse flapping shreds of cover and ramshackle urban scrap, and be half-blinded by a confetti of ricocheting RPGs, lobbed grenades, alien night vision, drone footage, and flaring street lamps. As several reviews have noted, in the American's retreat from the first compound to the second the film features a chase sequence stunning in its harried visualization of a vehicle beleaguered by a frantic onslaught of enemies and ordinance—a chase whose verve is notably charged by the twisted humor of the fact its participants are the incompetent State Department officers.
The action, from the point of view of the Americans, is a gorgeous visual tapestry of perpetual proximate danger—echoes of the late Tony Scott’s precarious mise en scène—and adrenaline-spiking stimulation: the high of the well-trained executing what they’ve been drilled at and yearned for. Lacking Pain & Gain's cringing satire (and even more broad parody), 13 Hours nevertheless is also directly dramatizing in high octane form an underexposed side of America: the supplanting of American state military force overseas by the dominating influence and importance of private contractors, many of whom are themselves ex-military. Here, they take matters (and lives) into their own hands—with resounding success—and we can see a lineage to the kind of men portrayed in 13 Hours all the way back to Michael Bay's debut: bad boys. Only now, these bad boys are the real deal.