Thursday, January 14, 2016

13 Hours

(Michael Bay, USA, 2016)

The only serious question I could summon was: is it as jingoistic as it seems, and as one would expect, knowing Michael Bay's movies?  Yes, there are shots of North African insurgents shooting holes in the American flag, and another shot of (perhaps) that same flag, floating desecrated in the pool among the other wreckage.  Yes, there are invocations of such sturdy ideas as America and Pride and Get 'er Done, and quick flashbacks to the Homeland that look like they've been modeled after a Home Depot flyer.  There is even a quick McDonald's commercial, nestled into the film like an Easter egg.  But the basis of the story is one of mismanagement and indifference at the highest levels of government, the result of which, we are reminded repeatedly, cost American lives.

Is this reactionary cinema in the twilight of the Obama era?  I remain undecided.  There are no real fingers pointed - no specific bad actors, save the CIA base chief, a walking cliché of official ineptitude and cowardice.  The ad-hoc embassy, and the nearby "secret" CIA base, are under-protected, and the overriding impression I got was of an American empire that is so sprawling that it's become impossible to adequately manage.  There is no credence given to the idea that America ought to be world's police force.  It might be that Bay and his cohort view this with so much "thanks, Obama"antipathy, but there are a few blink-and-you'll-miss-them gestures towards the end that seem designed to deflect animosity from the Islamic world in general.  So my impression of Bay's views is that they are politically unremarkable, with vaguely liberal shadings of tolerance and of conservative non-intervention.  The real meat is the mythology, which is as old as the hills: the basic decency and skill of the working man, the sanctity of the nuclear family (all of the contractors are married with kids), faith in God and Country and masculine honor. 

For some reason, I can't get too worked up over this.  Peel it back a layer, and there is a festering swamp of toxic ideology, ignorance, and brutality.  But in the realm of  urgent political problems that make the headlines every day, the idea that the ideological fight needs to be fought onscreen seems dangerously mistaken.  In 13 Hours, you see the thing for what it is.  Some people might be inspired by its pageantry, but the overall experience is so punishing, so godawful - and not unintentionally, Bay really wants us to feel the hell of combat, and we do - that I doubt whether it will have much of an effect, one way or the other.  Perhaps this is naïve.  There is no mention of our overall complicity in the terrible reign of Gaddafi, and in the chaos that ensued after he was deposed.  The movie is absent of any real political awareness or maturity.  But so is most of the media, and that's been true historically.  Denouncing Michael Bay for this seems like blaming AC/DC for their bad sex metaphors, or for playing too loud. 

Points ought to be given to the actors, both for their admirable facial hair and their summoning seriousness in delivering some of the truly absurd lines.  And there are moments - scarce, and too quickly chopped by Bay's nervous editing - of striking visual intensity, mostly when the camera soars above and around the compound and through the surrounding area.  I suspect that they were stitched together from crane, helicopter, and possibly drone shots, but they make up the rare moments when Bay seems to have any sense of cinematic style or taste. 

Bay is easily one of our most crass and cynical directors.  His protestations about wanting to direct smaller films, move away from the mega-franchises he started, seem to me to be basically disingenuous.  But there's a weird purity to what he does.  He's much more a product than a producer; a kid who never outgrew his childhood love-affair with high-gloss schlock Americana.  In this respect, he resembles Spielberg, another overgrown kid with a movie camera and millions of dollars at his disposal.  But Spielberg has another side to him, an intelligence that elevates his best work, and that prevents him from being merely adolescent.  Bay is lost in the funhouse, living in an America that never existed, comfortable with his money and his dreams of happy meals and happy families, ever protected from all the noisy, foreign evil that is at least an ocean away. 

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