Love him or hate him - I know which side I'm on! - the fact that Michael Bay of all people has turned into a "one for me, one for the studios" director is utterly fascinating. One would not imagine that a man whose name has become a shorthand for lowest-common-denominator popular excess would have a hard time fulfilling the duties of providing ginormous crap entertainment, yet it's as clear as could be to look at the recent pattern of his career. He keeps making Transformerses for Paramount, despite announcing every time, in almost as many words, "I hate these fucking things and I won't make any more of them"; in exchange, Paramount lets him make smaller projects (though damn near everything is smaller than a Transformers) with less commercial appeal. And indeed, the two features thus produced (Pain & Gain was the first one) are both among the three lowest-grossing films of Bay's career. They are also, wouldn't you know, among his very best movies.

Yeah, yeah, faint praise.

In fact, I wish I could go farther: the sleek, wiry, 90-minute-long 13 Hours is his best work since his sophomore effort The Rock all the way back in 1996 (The Rock remains, all these years and movies later, the only Bay picture that I think is actually, genuinely good), a sweaty thriller in lurid digital hues that actually cares about the agony of human death in some measurable way, and presents sufficiently differentiated characters that we can appreciate the fact that some of them might die. For the first time since... ever, Bay's erotic fixation of U.S. military equipment has a meaningful plot justification, and while the whole thing is grossly gung ho and giddily violent and pro-war, there's a certain regal Hollywood classicism to the way screenwriter Chuck Hogan presents the "America, Fuck Yeah!"-ism as an extension of the people and the scenario, rather than purely as a military recruiting video.

The reason I cannot go farther is that 13 Hours, as released in its final cut, is actually 144 minutes long, and it is a desolate slog. Bay, of course, has made an art form out of movies that are indefensibly too long; the mean length of the four Transformers pictures, which are toy commercials that are also car commercials, is 153 minutes. And they feel subjectively much longer than they are. It's weird and inexplicable that a filmmaker whose aesthetic hinges on pure kineticism and velocity, with images, edits, and effects zooming towards the viewer at the speed of sound, would make so many movies that are such endurance tests of slack pacing and non momentum. I well remember the experience of falling in love, getting married, and fathering an infant son, all during the second act of Transformers: Age of Extinction. But anyway, back to 13 Hours.

The film takes as it subject the 11 September, 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a controversial event that at the time resulted in much right-wing vitriol hurled at U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. As you reflect on that, and on 13 Hours's 2016 release date, it's natural to come to the conclusion that this was Bay's Fahrenheit 9/11-style attempt to nudge the results of the American presidential election away from Clinton. You would be wildly optimistic to do so. For 13 Hours to be purposeful anti-Clinton propaganda, it would first have to be in some meaningful away aware of the real world and the political consequences of actions, and that's asking way the hell too much of it. The order of the day is the earnest, manly solemnity of Our Boys - the heroes are actually CIA contractors, not in any way members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and this is referenced quite a lot in dialogue, yet the movie seems to have no awareness of this fact - doing what must be done for Righteousness and Freedom, even when it is hard, and even when those damn bureaucrats back in Washington aren't willing to support them.

It's thoroughly generic combat picture boilerplate, basically a weepy jock version of a Kathryn Bigelow movie. This is of course more or less inherently obnoxious, but I am in favor of digging up the good where we can find it. In this case, the good is that there's some real effort made to flesh out the six members of the CIA's Global Response Staff, the ex-military private contractors hired to protect the Agency's insufficiently secret base in Benghazi. Those being Jack Silva (John Krasinski, on the backside of a hardcore muscle-training regimen), newly arrived in country, his old buddy Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), and the four smudgier characters: Kris "Tanto" Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave "Boon" Benton" (David Denman), John "Tig" Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), and Mark "Oz" Geist (Max Martini). Not a one of them is anything but a bundle of war movie clichΓ©s - there are pregnant wives back home, and all of that - but the actors are all game enough to put some kind of meaningful personality into their portrayals. Dale in particular creates a pretty decent character, earnest and soulful in a way that easily could be corny, but is effectively heartfelt, in however dopey a fashion.

Nobody would ever mistake any of this for a classic ensemble film about the psychology of men in war, but stacked up next to the necrotic inhabitants of Pearl Harbor, the last Bay film that cared this much about the human-scale drama underneath all of the explosions, it's practically Strindberg. And with such a "strong" "human" "foundation", 13 Hours gets to feel a bit more meaningful, with greater impact to its mindless action, given that it's happening to people we at least recognise as fellow humans. This is kind of great, actually, because say what you will about Bay's movies (no really, say it! It's oodles of fun!), the man really does have an eye for dramatic Pop-infused compositions that rapturously depict violence and mayhem as cinematic ballet. It's just for the most part, he only uses that eye in concert with loathsome screenplays and editing that seems to view continuity and legibility as its sworn mortal enemies. Neither of these things attain in 13 Hours, which is a remarkably slowed-down, talky movie, one that actually lets some scenes find their own rhythm rather than just cram them into a blender. Apparently, when Bay does this, it means movies that are almost a full 66% longer than they ought to be, which is a pity - but at least editors Michael McCasker, Pietro Scalia (a god among editors), and Calvin Wimmer get to care about making sure that we understand how places fit together and how actions evolve over time and between shots.

The film is generally more of a thriller than an action movie, and sometimes an effective one: besides the editors' ability to make scenes come to a slow boil - relatively slow, anyway - Lorne Balfe's bass-dominated score does a fantastic job of reaching in and wiggling the viewer's guts to get some kind of discomfort and tension throughout. The film also boasts some of the very best sound mixing of the year, presenting combat as a multi-directional whirlwind, but one where certain tendencies can still be detected, and the relative direction of threats teased out. It's still a Bay film, which still means glossy, superficial imagery that certainly doesn't work to the benefit of the tension: Dion Beebe shot this, not that you could tell right off, given that all Bay films look like each other. But even so, within the whorishly oversaturated, metallic color scheme, you can still make out something of the experiments with the texture and lighting quality of digital cinematography found in Beebe's collaborations with Michael Mann (this is Bay's first all-digital production). The film has a sharpness to it that adds a harsh note which goes some way in redeeming this from Bay's usually empty style.

Looking back over all of that, it damn near looks like I'm defending the thing, so let's be sure to quash any of that: this is still bozo, pro-war, pandering jingoism whose indifference to real-world geopolitics is so complete, despite a lengthy splooge of exposition right at the start, that it manages to make a mockery of the very same Americans it so lustfully praises, by failing to seriously consider what they were doing besides Embodying Masculinity. And naturally, it can't start to conceive of the Libyans as anything other than the mass of people who are Not Americans. Having relatively strong characters and relatively clear editing for a Michael Bay film does not mean that it can claim either of those as triumphs relative to cinema as a whole: the cast are still stereotypes and the cutting still a dizzy mess. And I cannot overstate: this fucker is long. Long in ways that can only be explained by meanness: there's simply no way that the shorter version of this movie isn't more focused and driving and therefore pleasurable to watch and stronger in its impact. As it is, 13 Hours has no impact: it is far too enervating to do much of anything other than be annoying. But you can see the good film inside of it. So that's new.