As 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi hit theaters, most of the discussion centered on the movie’s political positioning: It's been praised by conservative media figures, with many suggesting — or worrying — that its portrayal of the September 11, 2012, attack on a diplomatic consulate and clandestine CIA outpost in Libya could spell trouble for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.
But if you put aside the film’s potential political impact for a moment, it turns out that 13 Hours is a rather gripping contemporary war movie, a suspenseful, hectic siege film that plays up the anxiety and uncertainty of modern warfare for soldiers on the ground. It’s also a reminder of how effective and canny an action filmmaker the movie’s director, Michael Bay, can be, despite his reputation as a purveyor of obnoxious blockbuster nonsense.
Michael Bay is a subversive cinematic auteur
More than anything else, Bay’s movies, in particular the Transformers and Bad Boys films, are known for being big, loud, and dumb. His pictures are frequently lambasted by critics: Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers once called Bay "the crassest hack in the business." And John Wilson, who founded the Golden Raspberry Awards — a.k.a. the Razzies, a sort of anti-Oscars designed to recognize especially terrible filmmaking — dismissed Bay (who has received four Worst Director Razzie nominations) as an inherently childish filmmaker. "He has this tendency to revert to the model of, 'It's Been 7 Minutes, Something Has to Blow Up Now,'" Wilson told Mother Jones in 2013.
Bay’s most recent summer blockbuster, 2014’s franchise reboot Transformers: Age of Extinction, scoring a dismal 18 percent rating on the movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. That’s remarkably low even for a not particularly hyped summer release.
And yet Bay isn’t simply crass and commercial; he’s also a visionary with a clearly identifiable style and a tendency toward filmmaking that can be reasonably described as challenging and even experimental. In other words, he's an auteur — the author of a film — whose movies reflect a distinctive, personal sensibility.
Few filmmakers are as stylistically consistent as Bay, who recycles many of the same shots, editing patterns, and color schemes in nearly all of his films: He loves hot neon color contrasts (especially teal and orange), and his movies often appear to take place in a perpetual magic hour, with moody sunsets and sunrises looming in the background.
Bay is obsessed with motion and commotion, filling his frames with noise and activity and then moving the camera in ways that accentuate the chaos. He reuses the same shots — poetically waving slow-motion flags, erratic whip pans, low-angle circular pans, subjects that make the world seem to swirl epically around them — over and over again, making each film seem like a collage of his favorite personal quotes. (For a more detailed critical discussion of the director's chaotic visual sensibility, check out this video essay by Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting.)
The editing, meanwhile, is often frenetic to the point of being unintelligible, prioritizing sensation over making sense. His movies are so exhausting and rapid-fire that they feel almost avant-garde at times, as if Bay is testing the limits of viewers’ ability to process information.
His stories tend to be just as incoherent. This is especially true in the Transformers films, which feature the sort of disconnected narrative logic you’d expect from an 8-year-old playing with toys in a sandbox. Part of what’s amazing about the movies is just how little sense they make when you try to break them down. (Here’s one hilarious attempt.) They're so muddled that it cannot have been an accident. It had to have been by design.
Transformers franchise scribe Ehren Kruger admitted as much in a 2014 interview describing his work with Bay. "We talk about sequences and visuals and moments," Kruger said. "Whereas in some other films, or ‘ordinary’ films, you might be very slavish to story and narrative first, and logical sense above all. When you’re talking about aliens, robotic machines which disguise themselves as vehicles and animals, you start to make your peace with the idea that logical sense doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all."
That’s an almost art-house sensibility; it’s just that Bay is applying it to explosions and CGI robots.
Michael Bay is a savvy commercial filmmaker
Bay is far from an indie experimentalist, of course. With few exceptions, his movies rake in cash, especially overseas. The Transformers films are now billion-dollar movies, with the majority of their earnings coming from the international box office — and China most of all. The fourth Transformers film, for example, was a solid hit in the United States, earning about $245 million domestically. However, it also brought in another $858 million internationally and became the biggest box office earner ever in China, raking in more than $300 million in that country alone.
Bay’s Transformers films were among the first to perform better overseas than domestically, and his over-the-top, chaotic style helps explain why: You don’t need to be able to speak English, or have much in the way of a nuanced understanding of American culture, to enjoy his noisy robot-fighting spectacles. That sort of entertainment doesn’t require any translation. In a global box office environment, then, his incoherence becomes a commercial virtue.
Bay’s commercial savvy extends to smaller films like 13 Hours as well. With its specifically American heroes and military context, it isn’t the sort of film that tends to bring in big bucks overseas. But it is the sort of movie that has proven a hit with American audiences, especially in the middle of January.
To wit: Lone Survivor, a $40 million adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s tale of a small group of soldiers who come under attack in Afghanistan, brought in a respectable $125 million in domestic earnings after opening nationally during the second weekend of January in 2013. And in 2014, American Sniper — another R-rated, mid-budget tale of modern warfare — grew into a giant hit, earning $350 million after expanding into wide release on the same weekend.
The box office success of both of those films was powered to a large extent by conservative viewers and conservative media. The marketing for 13 Hours is following suit. Not only has the film received significant discussion on Fox News, but ads have touted raves from conservative media luminaries like Megyn Kelly and Stephen Hayes. The idea is to leverage its perceived politics for box office gain in hopes of producing another American Sniper–size success story. It’s a business decision as much as a political statement.
That business decision doesn't appear to have paid off, however. 13 Hours opened in a disappointing fourth place over the weekend, pulling in just $16 million, suggesting that the movie's overtly political advertising strategy may have had limited appeal — and perhaps even turned off some viewers. As it turns out, then, Bay's commercial savvy may not extend all that far beyond the more populist summer fare he's typically known for.
Michael Bay is a populist crowd pleaser
Bay, of course, is rumored to be a not-so-secret conservative himself. And his films certainly seem to offer some hints in that direction: They frequently fetishize service members and military hardware, and they tend to portray governments and bureaucracy as ineffectual, self-interested, and incompetent. In his first Transformers film, all the Decepticons (the bad guy robots) were government vehicles, while all the good guy robots were American-made cars. In his asteroid disaster movie Armageddon, the good guys were a team of oil rig workers who demanded to never pay taxes again in exchange for saving the planet. 13 Hours certainly seems to have pleased conservative writers who’ve seen it already.
Bay prefers not to talk too overtly about his politics, telling Mother Jones that he doesn’t "feel the need to go out and tell people what to believe politically," but also saying that America has "a very ineffectual government."
It’s the sort of careful, suggestive statement that hints his politics probably lean to the right. But it’s also the kind of thing that a lot of people who don’t identify as conservative might agree with. That’s typical for Bay.
Overall, his films traffic more in exuberant, vulgar populism than in anything like explicit conservatism. His movies, especially his R-rated films, are packed with bloody violence and explicit sexuality. His dim view of government’s managerial competence is balanced somewhat by his awestruck approach to its war machinery and spaceflight programs (NASA plays a major part in saving the planet in Armageddon).
Even 13 Hours comes across as wary of foreign interventions. Discussing the death of one of the characters, a private security contractor laments that "he died in a place he didn’t need to be, in a battle over something he didn’t understand, in a country that meant nothing to him."
Bay, in other words, is less a right-wing filmmaker and more of a populist crowd pleaser who unapologetically makes movies for the masses, both at home and abroad.
Michael Bay is utterly self-aware
Bay’s movies may look chaotic and messy, but he always knows exactly what he’s doing. And in the right venue, he’s willing to poke fun at his own image. One of Bay’s best films is 2013's Pain & Gain, an R-rated crime comedy based on the true story of a group of not-very-smart weight lifters who get involved in a criminal extortion and kidnapping scheme that goes horribly wrong. It’s vulgar, crude, and often hilarious (many of Bay’s movies are surprisingly funny), and in many ways serves as a sendup of the sort of macho, hyper-masculine action posing that Bay tends to play essentially straight in his more mainstream films.
And then there’s this Verizon commercial, in which Bay, playing himself, calls his own directing "genius," declares that he "demands things to be awesome," and then sets off a bunch of random explosions:
That’s the real promise of Bay’s movies: that regardless of anything else, they will be awesome, and every frame will be packed with awesome things: awesome robots, awesome cars, awesome chases, awesome explosions.
More than anything else, it’s his ability to consistently deliver on that promise that has made him such a successful and powerful filmmaker.