Michael Bay's overblown machismo may make liberal stomachs churn, but his true-life Libyan shoot-'em-up is maddeningly effective

Michael Bay’s films are all, after a fashion, war movies – exercises in blitzkrieg annihilation, whether the targets are Transformers, drug dealers, or whatever it is that explodes in The Island. His last epic to milk a real-life war for inspiration was Pearl Harbor back in 2001 – a movie of absurd hubris, overbearing bombast, and laughably shopworn emotional stakes. Even listing these directorial traits – out in force for Bay’s new one, the Libyan shoot-'em-up 13 Hours – has become an exercise in redundancy. The film says “Michael Bay” on it. We know the drill.

Watching Bay wade into the war on terror, reconstructing the 2012 attacks on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, is guaranteed to make anyone nervous, especially those who like their war films to tread carefully, show more than one side, or sympathise with someone who isn’t an American ex-military security contractor called “Tig”, “Bub” or “Rone”. Six of these brick shithouses were deployed to safeguard a covert US consulate, one of the few left operational at that time, after a city-wide evacuation of other countries’ embassies owing to the threat of militant attacks.

The script, by Chuck Hogan, occasionally sounds like a parody of the sort of thing Bay might have commissioned. “You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys,” declares Rone (James Badge Dale) to his newly arrived colleague Jack (an ill-at-ease John Krasinski) within minutes of his deployment. It doesn’t help that Bay scrupulously avoids close-ups of almost anyone who isn’t white, except for the lone African-American on security detail.

John Krasinski as Jack Silva in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi Credit: Christian Black

Even crasser is the heart-tugging flashback to Jack’s home life. “The girls don’t need a treehouse, Jack! They need you,” says his gorgeous wife. Meanwhile, the Americans nod in approval when they hear that Colonel Gaddafi liked to surround himself exclusively with big-breasted female bodyguards. “Gaddafi wasn’t stupid,” they say to one other. The script is stupid.

Only when mortar attacks commence against the American ambassador’s hideaway (“Shit’s starting to get real”) does the film start to fling down any cards from Bay’s strong suits. And it genuinely connects. The shock and chaos, the torching of the residence, and the ensuing disorientation hit home. Better yet is an evacuation sequence, with a packed armoured car taking wrong turns through the Benghazi streets at night: here Bay lacerates our nerves with stuntwork and apocalyptic sound design, making us flinch from every fusillade and screech of brakes.

It’s possible to abhor the film’s mounting skill, especially for the way it casually blows Arab bodies to smithereens while treating every one of its soldier-heroes like a separate iteration of Christ. This is Call of Duty cinema, putting faceless enemies in the crosshairs. But it’s fiendishly effective at doing so – and it’s this ruthless virtuosity, you suspect, that inflames ideological objections most of all.

John Krasinski in Michael Bay's Benghazi thriller '13 Hours'

Blame has been laid at Hillary Clinton’s feet for mishandling the response to the Benghazi attacks. The film doesn’t mention her once, but it does personify the CIA chain of command as feeble and milquetoastish, not fit to lick the boots of the fearless alpha males who faced wave after wave of militia fire.

Less here is open to debate than it was in Clint Eastwood's wilfully misunderstood American Sniper. Even so, we could argue all day about how propagandistic Bay’s film is aiming to be. To accuse it of being hawkish, you would need to have not seen it: no one involved on the American side thinks it’s a great idea to be standing in harm’s way.

On the other hand, the fear of God and of the USA are invoked as if they’re more or less the same thing. Everything you’d expect from Bay is here with bells on – the macho provocation, the sound and fury, and the diabolical pleasure in reducing everything to rubble and bloody mush. As a gruelling epitaph to lives wasted that, in almost anyone’s estimation, shouldn’t even have been risked, there’s a strange purity to it, wedded to a technical assurance that makes it almost maddeningly hard to shake off.