Watching the new Michael Bay movie 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi, as I told myself I wouldn’t but knew I would, I got déjà vu. “Hmm,” I thought. “What other piece of zany, overlong jingoism have I recently subjected myself to, despite promising I wouldn’t go near it?” Then it came to me: Donald Trump’s presidential campaign! The more I thought about it, the more similarities I noticed. It’s too deep a topic to condense into an essay, so I made it a listicle instead.
1. Both Dislike Hillary Clinton
This one’s obvious. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were apparently friends once, but not anymore. He says mean things about her as part of his campaign: for example, he just called her “evil” and “insane” on Bill O’Reilly’s show.
Michael Bay’s movies have had conservative themes before, but 13 Hours is the first to explicitly target a conservative audience. It’s about the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, which killed four Americans including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya (ICYMI, conservatives have repeatedly tried to blame the attack on Hillary Clinton’s lack of oversight). The movie occupies the same calendar spot that made American Sniper a record-breaking success, positioned early in January to empty Middle America’s wallets while the coasts are still enjoying their bourgeois Oscar bait. While it never mentions Hillary Clinton by name, 13 Hours has plenty of government bureaucrats who have no idea what’s going on “on the ground,” and the subtext is there for the red-staters to enjoy. Cue bad joke about a Michael Bay movie having subtext. Moving on…
2. Both Play On Conservative Fears Of Radical Islam
This one’s also obvious. Donald Trump has repeatedly doubled down on hate speech against Muslims and advocated a registry for Muslims living in the US. He also wants to block all Syrian refugees from entering the country.
Weirdly enough, 13 Hours is less racist than some of the Transformers movies. There’s a scene towards the end that’s gotten a lot of attention where the wives and families of the dead enemy combatants mourn over their corpses, and it coincides with John Krasinski telling his wife he’s coming home. This juxtaposition is probably the most emotionally interesting moment of Bay’s career. I teared up a little.
At the same time, you know what kind of movie this is. None of the enemy insurgents has a speaking role. That might be a saving grace in a way: no speeches about the evil infidels, virgins in the sky, etc. But…yeah. No dialogue for the villains. They might as well be mobile, slightly more dangerous targets on the range. The few non-insurgent Muslim characters are wimps, liars, and hagglers (except for the token “good Muslim,” who’s gotten some fair comparisons to Gunga Din).
This isn’t that surprising; I don’t imagine our troops have too many conversations with enemies on the battlefield, and the whole film is about aligning the viewer with the titular “secret soldiers.” I’m complaining that water is wet, but yeah, 13 Hours doesn’t care too much about humanizing Muslims in the Middle East.
3. Both Go On For Too Long
When Donald Trump launched his campaign, it was pretty funny to some people. I didn’t watch the video where he called Mexicans rapists, but when I heard about it, not gonna lie, I laughed. The Huffington Post reacted in the same way, covering his campaign in their Entertainment section instead of Politics for a while. If he had run for a couple of months and gone back to The Apprentice, that would have been fine. He’d still be an asshole, but a funny one. Now it’s been over half a year. He just won New Hampshire. It’s not funny anymore.
13 Hours is 2 hours and 24 minutes….eghh. This has been an issue for Bay throughout his career. Bad Boys is the only movie he’s ever made under 2 hours (it’s 1:58). The Transformers movies are getting exponentially longer: the last one was 2:45. There’s nothing wrong with making a movie that long if it’s an art film where the audience reflects on the passage of time, or a Bollywood historical epic. But there should be a law against action movies crossing the 2:15 mark. Especially when your directorial style (not knocking it) aims to be as overwhelming and disorienting as possible. I tend to stagger out of Michael Bay movies rubbing my temples, and 13 Hours was no exception.
4. Both Are Orange
Donald Trump, if you didn’t know, is very orange. Since we don’t see skin color in America anymore, you might have a hard time noticing, but it’s true. Concentrate on any photo of him and you’ll realize those Oompa Loompa memes weren’t just about the shape and texture of his face, but the color as well.
I’m getting pretty theoretical, but I’ll try to translate for those of you who didn’t go to film school. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that a lot of stuff in 13 Hours (along with Michael Bay’s other films) is really orange too. The actors’ faces. The buildings. The signature Baysplosions. The first hour of this movie makes it look like Benghazi got carpet-bombed with cheese puffs. Until it turns nighttime, then everything is blue/night-vision green instead. Except for the fire and explosions. Those are still orange.
5. Depending On Who You Ask, Their Finances Are Either Great Or Terrible
Donald Trump wrote a book called The Art Of The Deal, and his negotiation skills are a big part of the package he’s selling to voters. Maybe he’s a brilliant business magnate, maybe he’s an idiot who’s declared bankruptcy a bunch of times. I’m not the person to ask.
Like all Michael Bay movies, 13 Hours is excessive, but this one might apply more to the Transformers films. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to level a city block and digitally insert a gold-toothed, monkey-eared, jive-talking ice cream truck into the carnage, and some would argue that that money is inherently going to waste. But Bay’s famous within Hollywood for his efficiency: he always brings his movies in on-time and under-budget. 13 Hours cost $50 million; Black Hawk Down, its closest analogue, cost $92 million fifteen years ago. That’s over $123 million in 2016 dollars. Bay may be a tough leader, but he gets results. Speaking of which…
6. Both Have Been Compared To Hitler
Donald Trump’s anti-establishment cult of personality and xenophobia have led a lot of pundits to call him a fascist demagogue. People say that he’s taking advantage of systemic unrest and economic squalor, much like Hitler did in the 30’s and many far-right parties are currently doing in Europe. Hard to disagree imo.
Michael Bay is known for being an asshole on set. If you can’t keep up with the breakneck pace of his shoots, you’re fired. It’s so extreme that Megan Fox publicly compared him to the fuhrer in an interview for the second Transformers. Everyone with a shitty boss has invoked Godwin’s Law at some point in their life, but Steven Spielberg (executive producer of Transformers, founder of the USC Shoah Foundation) wasn’t a fan of the reference. She wasn’t in Transformers 3 or 4, for those of you who didn’t see them.
7. Both Go For The Gut (And Are Very Good At It)
When Trump’s campaign started, the liberal intelligentsia treated it as a joke. How could Donald Trump, a real-estate magnate and reality TV star with no governmental experience in any capacity, act like he knew what he was talking about w/r/t foreign policy, the multi-trillion-dollar debt crisis, and our gridlocked Congress?
What they didn’t understand was the extent to which Trump’s rhetoric plays to the nativist fears of white Middle America. He might seem like he’s bullshitting off-the-cuff nonsense at those debates, but it’s a performance expertly calculated to differentiate himself from the other candidates. Whether or not he has one of the all-time great memories is still up for debate, but with shock and horror we have come to realize that yes, he is a smart man after all. You can say the same dumb shit over and over again, and as long as it’s exactly what voters want to hear, you’re good.
Critics have lobbed similarly incredulous critiques at Michael Bay since he began his feature film career. “This isn’t how you’re supposed to direct an action scene! There’s supposed to be defined spatial geography, dramatic stakes, long takes where you can see what’s happening. This guy’s just swinging a camera around, setting stuff on fire, and putting the dailies in a blender! How can people stand this!?”
Now that we’re 20 years into Bay’s directing career, that question is being asked with a lot less condescension. In an essay for the Criterion edition of Armageddon, Michael Bay’s mentor Jeanine Basinger (disclosure: also one of my professors) wrote:
“Over the years, I’ve seen a great deal of material from freshmen…but I have yet to see anything like Bay’s high school photos. They were astonishing—revealing an amazing eye for composition, an instinct for capturing movement, and an inherent understanding of implied narrative. Later, I saw this same ability in film classes.”
The idea of Michael Bay as an auteur who uses the tools of cinema to purposefully guide audiences towards specific ends—usually, awe, joy, and exhilaration, but in 13 Hours‘s case the horrors of war—has gained ground in recent years. Where critics once derided his kitchen-sink approach as amateurish, they now grudgingly use terms like “deep-focus composition” and “impressionistic editing” to describe it. A.O. Scott admitted that he liked Transformers 3. Everyone seems to be coming around to the fact that Bayhem as a touchstone of American cinema is here to stay.
Sure, there have been some less successful imitators of his style in the $200m blockbuster era (hello Clash Of The Titans remake), but you could also argue that there would be no Bourne, no Dark Knight, no Marvel megafranchises, no Elite Squad, no District 9, no Fast and Furious, no Crank, no Attack the Block, no late-period Tony Scott, and no Mad Max: Fury Road without the Bay sensibility. That’s a pretty nice legacy. Maybe some of those movies would exist without Bay’s influence, but they wouldn’t be as awesome.
And you know what? Maybe some good stuff will come of the Trump campaign too! Maybe the GOP will realize that chronically underfunding education and turning their base into a bunch of easily manipulated chumps has really bitten them in the ass, so they’ll start teaching science and critical thinking skills in their public schools. Maybe both parties will realize in horror how terrible it was to lift spending caps on presidential campaigns. Maybe the reaction to Trump will usher in a new age of respectful bipartisan politics that will turn this country around just in time to face climate change.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510