Originally published in the 1/20/2016 issue of DIG Baton Rouge
Aren’t we beyond this? Haven’t we gotten past this?
By “this”, I mean depictions of non Americans as being strange and dangerous. Somehow unnatural, if you will. In Michael Bay’s latest, non Transformers film called 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, if you are not directly sided with U.S. Forces or interests, you are essentially a bad guy. A disposable bad guy. A highly disposable bad guy. Now, you could argue that Bay is merely expressing the not so subtle feelings that America has towards the Middle East (and warfare in general), but this expression is not intentional or even shared by him. For Bay, this is a tale of values, black and white. A movie to be proud of.
In the most basest way, he is right. In the most clear headed view, he is terribly wrong.
13 Hours is an almost United 93 style depiction of the Benghazi, Libya attacks in 2012. A small group of security contractors provide defense for C.I.A. officers and attempt to rescue an Ambassador, under some of the most confusing and dangerous circumstances imaginable. I don’t know if I would call the action here “action”, as it is more scary than anything. We are thrust into a scenario with too many x factors to be considered, and definitely feel the pressure of those brave souls. Sweat dripping over eyes, blood rushing through the body, strangers everywhere — who do you point your gun at?
This tension is palpable, until subversion sets in, and 13 Hours becomes a Canon Films like affair, minus Chuck Norris. To be fair AND to be critical, the movie takes its subject matter too seriously to go straight into 1980s shoot em up camp. To label it that self aware would be giving it too much credit. Instead, it opts for uber moral superiority and heightened testicular fortitude. The common denominator is brute macho force with a heavy Nationalistic mind. Norris would be down for that, but only if the proceedings were treated less like Blackhawk Down and more like Looney Tunes. That philosophy with this execution makes for such a maddening mishap of tone for something billed as “a true story”.
I wonder if the militant Libyan attackers actually crept within the shadows and gun smoke in a manner not unlike the Raptors in Jurassic Park. Cause that’s certainly how they were depicted. Perhaps they were faceless in the sniper scope, but is that how all combatants, no matter of race or ethnicity, are seen by American forces? By our police? A world where no man, woman or child can be trusted. This is the real Mad Max.
Surprisingly, Michael Bay holds back a bit on his brand of dumb jock humor, choosing to showcase the quirks and eccentricities of the foreigners. I type “foreigners” knowing that the Americans are actually guests in someone else’s home country. It never really feels like we are the outsiders. Instead, we act like we own this land, and everyone not looking or sounding like us gets shot or yelled at. We are the minority, and yet everyone/everything else is the problem. Reminds me of the fury and fire of a Republican debate.
I don’t mean to politicize a movie based on a highly politicized event, but maybe, just maybe, it’s appropriate. 13 Hours makes a grand effort at exploiting the bravery, courage and sacrifice of a few — a cross it wants to bear, ending with a pre credits In Memory Of sign off — at the expense of revealing truly dark feelings towards, well, everyone. If it weren’t for some likable performances that gave inklings of human depth, this would be a completely intolerable experience.
I’ll settle for bad aftertaste.