The announcement that Michael Bay is going to direct a movie about Benghazi seems tailor-made to provoke paroxysms of snarky schadenfreude in a prominent section of the internet’s pop culture commentariat. It was an announcement to rival Nicolas Cage’s unveiling as the star of the rebooted evangelical apocalypse thriller Left Behind. Even more than the meme-factory Cage, Bay is thought by many to represent every over-the-top, fraudulent strain that’s currently tainting cinema—and here he is, at the helm of a story whose only natural audience are the Fox-watching philistines of the flyover states (and ironic hate-watchers). According to the AV Club it’s “news that seems like it’s designed simply as a setup for the sharpest political joke of all time.”
If the reason Michael Bay exists is to create big, loud cultural events that will satisfy people and get them talking, he may have already made his masterpiece. Bay’s films are renowned for being big, loud, over-the-top money-making machines. His signature style, often called “Bayhem,” involves having as many elements moving onscreen as possible; swirling, larger-than-life. For this, his movies make obscene amounts of money, but have made him a convenient target to represent all that’s hollow and commercial about contemporary Hollywood. As far as the excess charge goes, it’s true, that’s what he does. Even Michael Bay’s most “modest” film, Pain & Gain (with an indie budget of $26 million) has physically gargantuan men as its selling point.
However, he incites the sort of critical pile-ons that have reviewers regularly invoking “the death of cinema.” A vlogger for Escapist Magazine posits that this kind of critical reaction isn’t just a swipe at Bay, it’s a proxy for attacking the perceived low tastes of America as a whole. Since it’s an unbreakable taboo for a critic to denigrate the “average American moviegoer,” the politically correct alternative is to trash with unrelenting zeal the filmmaker who’s seen as most emblematic of their unrefined tastes. To slag Bay, the logic goes, is to stake a place above the perceived bovine intellect of the typical popcorn-gobbling Cineplex rube.
Michael Bay isn’t just film’s most excessive artist, he represents things—he embodies totalizing statements. And now he’s going to make a film based on the book Thirteen Hours: A Firsthand Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi.
The non-partisan backstory is that on September 11, 2012, members of a Libyan militia attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and the nearby CIA station, killing the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, a diplomat, and two CIA contractors. Eastern Libya had historically been a center for takfiri extremism—according to Newsweek, “an astoundingly large number of men traveled from there to Iraq to fight Americans during the war, and in a 2008 telegram released by WikiLeaks, Ambassador Stevens wrote that “By contrast with mosques in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country, where references to jihad are extremely rare, in Benghazi and Derna they are fairly frequent subjects.”
A story of weaponized Salafism resulting in “blowback” doesn’t put asses in movie theater seats, though. It’s actually just about the most unpopular story there is—just ask Jeremiah Wright (Still, Reverend, please reply to me about my screenplay, God Damn America). However, this all happened in the run-up to the 2012 election, when any news story was subject to being mashed through one of two partisan sluices.
Rallying around the President and against their hated Republican uncles on Facebook, liberals declared that there was absolutely no story to be told, and any intimation otherwise was hilarious on its face. Smelling another shot at impeachment after Obummer produced that birth certificate, reactionaries quickly declared it a matter of existential national importance, spinning it off into stories about rescue planes sitting on tarmacs and Hillary Clinton’s fake concussion. With an American national disgrace as the crime, and a dubious story about a spontaneous anti-hate film demonstration providing the cover-up, the Benghazi scandal as it’s currently understood was born.
Into this melee steps Michael Bay, a filmmaker who elicits Benghazi-like reactions. Naturally, since Benghazi is so thoroughly coded the domain of the right, and Bay’s movies are so throbbingly patriotic, it’s tempting to see the attraction as something Republican. However, Bay is less a traditional patriot than a maximalist, so if the biggest, most explosive political event is the Benghazi consulate attack, then Michael Bay’s Benghazi will see America in 2016.
Though Bay is cagey about his politics (Mother Jones pins him down as a conservative) these sorts of labels are too reductive to categorize such an over-the-top artist. While Bay’s movies are known for their über-patriotism, the military is only being valorized on the surface. What’s really being fetishized is strength, movement, and mass. The US military is the only institution capable of moving so much metal at such speeds, directing so much fire, and roaring with such unrestrained fury. John D’Amico makes the compelling case that Bay is a Futurist, inspired by the Mussolini-era Italian art genre that loved the movement, speed, and power of machines.
The Italian Futurists were creatures of the far-right, naturally—not out of a loyalty to Italy, but because Fascism as a movement promised great destructive renewal. As their manifesto said, “We want to glorify war—the only cure for the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.” Similarly, Bay’s loyalty to America’s military is less an expression of patriotism and more an attachment to the greatest destructive force on the planet. As Mother Jones wrote, “his patriotic views may have been best captured in a line delivered by Wahlberg in Bay’s 2013 crime film Pain & Gain: ‘When it started, America was just a handful of scrawny colonies. Now, it’s the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet. That’s pretty rad.’”
That Bay’s eye is more mercenary than patriotic is evident in the Transformers movies, seemingly the most rah-rah franchise since Maverick took America’s breath away. Bay will make movie after movie depicting the great heroism and physical courage of the US military, then pornographically depict the total destruction of a 2,000 crewmember aircraft carrier for 90 seconds and move on. When China, rather than the United States, is the biggest film market, the People’s Liberation Army becomes the hero. This is what happened with 2014’s Transformers 4, which depicts the US government as inept or criminal, and the Chinese government as capable and virile. It worked, too—the film became the highest-grossing film in Chinese history.
Only the masterful, mercenary vision of Bay is big enough to take a politically bifurcated story like Benghazi and make a film that will be all things to all people. Contemporary military/political thrillers are defined as much by their receptions as their content. “Liberal” military/political films are made to win Oscars. Katherine Bigelow and Paul Greengrass are the two pre-eminent directors of the genre, and their films have taken place in the wake of the destruction of Iraq (The Hurt Locker, Green Zone) or as part of greater stories of successful Obama-era assassination operations (Zero Dark 30, Captain Phillips, Greengrass’ upcoming Morten Storm biopic). For her work, Bigelow became the first female winner of the Academy Award for Best Director, and Greengrass and his films have been nominated for dozens of awards.
Right-wing military movies tend to be things like The Marine and Act of Valor, movies starring wrestlers and real, live Navy SEALs. The most successful right-wing military-political film, Lone Survivor, was directed by a Democrat, Peter Berg, and described by the filmmaker as apolitical. However, since its valorization of military heroism is so turgid, the film was picked up as a right-wing media cause célèbre. Glenn Beck’s The Blaze was particularly erect at the chance to share every scrap of news about the film’s victory over liberal coastal elitism.
So far, the information available about the tentatively titled 13 Hours indicates that Bay is on track to deliver the Benghazi film that a politically divided America needs. The film has some markers that align it with liberal military/political films. He’s selected a book that purports to be a blow-by-blow recount of the night’s events, rather than something more explicitly political (Like Benghazi: The Definitive Report, sexily written by two former tier-1 Special Forces operators). 13 Hours is already being described as akin to Black Hawk Down—liberal, thanks to its respectable Academy Award-nomination for Best Director: Ridley Scott.
However, this is a Benghazi movie we’re talking about, and in some ways, Lone Survivor looks like a precursor. Lone Survivor’s director, Peter Berg, is one of the most enthusiastic acolytes of the Bayhem school of filmmaking. Berg’s 2012’s Battleship is a clear imitator, whose attempts to ape Bay’s style get the mechanics right but neglect the specifics that make Bay’s work visually overwhelming. If Berg made the most successful right-wing military/political thriller based on a disastrous but relatively obscure military operation, the promise of the Master taking on the biggest scandal around promises an epic of suitably Bayhemic proportions.
And because 13 Hours is pitched at both liberal and conservative audiences, it holds unique promise for Bay-haters (Bay-ters? ©, Me). When Bay makes an action-packed eye-candy popcorn movie—like Transformers or Armageddon—it’s “merely” the sort of movie that heralds the death of cinema or delegitimizes the entire Criterion Collection. When Michael Bay tries to tell a serious dramatic story against the backdrop of an American military humiliation, it’s Pearl Harbor. It becomes the cultural hubris of legend, literally worth immortalizing in song. For anyone who laughed during Team America, the seriousness of Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie doesn’t legitimize it—it elevates it into a rarefied cultural target.
Snakes on a Plane didn’t just become a cultural phenomenon just because its didactic title contained the entire premise of the movie. So did Hotel for Dogs and We Bought a Zoo, and those didn’t lead legions of web commenters to demand reshoots so Don Cheadle could scream “more motherfucking dogs in this motherfucking hotel.” Snakes on a Plane ignited the response that it did because it was a vehicle for a celebrity who elicited the strongest reactions out of internet-savvy moviegoers—the kind of actor that Marvel comics would make the face of an eleven-figure franchise.
While Samuel L. Jackson is one of the most beloved figures of nerd-dom, Michael Bay is easily the most hated man in cinema. And the subject matter isn’t a wanna-be cult phenomenon like Snakes on a Plane. It’s not even Left Behind—though it’s a giant franchise on the religious right, “Nicolae Carpathia” isn’t exactly a household name. It’s Benghazi—an event that’s so big, the –ghazi suffix is competing with –gate for scandal-naming supremacy (about which no one is happier than Freepers. Freepers!)
Both Michael Bay and Benghazi are superlative object lessons in extreme reactions. With Benghazi, a more measured take, beyond the worthless Red vs. Blue frame, would include the fact that a diplomat was murdered amidst shady clandestine operations, another instance of “blowback” in a region to which the US has brought chaos. However, for the right it’s the worst horror to happen on September 11th. For the savvy types who drive a lot of internet media culture, not only is there no substance to the Benghazi scandal—it’s not even remotely comprehensible what the scandal could conceivably be.
Similarly, Bay may be representative of a uniquely American brand of excess, but his popularity isn’t inexplicable. He’s on the Criterion Collection because, like it or not, he makes “important contemporary films,” and he has a unique vision, just like Douglas Sirk or Wes Anderson have unique visions. However, for the savvy types who drive a lot of internet media culture, not only does he not have qualities as a filmmaker worth celebrating—his films “declare cinema dead” and spend their run times “desecrating its corpse.”
For conservative true-believers and the moviegoers who contributed to the $4 billion gross of the Transformers franchise, one of Hollywood’s few Republicans is showing how things really went down for those abandoned heroes in Libya. An exciting, heart-rending story told with Bay’s unique, unequaled, flag-waving bravado. For liberals and film aesthetes (two groups which share large overlap), the man who represents all that’s fake and cynical about the art of film is doing one of his big, loud, dumb movies about the biggest, loudest, dumbest, fakest, and most cynical thing to get crapped out by the Right-Wing Noise Machine.
America’s most excessive director depicting its most divisive political scandal has unparalleled promise, not just as a cultural product but as a cultural event. Michael Bay making a movie about Benghazi isn’t a setup for the greatest joke of all time—it is the greatest joke of all time.