Hero Complex
The U.S. Military’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
by Jeff Reichert

We need to see a commitment from the filmmaker that its going to look real. Fighting alien robots isnt realistic, but if we did fight alien robots this is the way wed do it.” —Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Bishop

As chugging guitar riffs crash in over pounding martial drums, the troops arrive. They’re on motorcycles, in Humvees, and on foot. Their mission begins in a beautiful blue-black twilight spotlit with illumination from headlamps and vehicle headlights. More and more men arrive as a baritone voiceover details the mission of this “brave squad” of soldiers for the viewer. We see the serious faces of some of these soldiers, lit by the reds and greens of the high-tech instrument panels and warning lights on the helicopter carrying them. “Keep it tight!” their leader commands, urgently, generically. The camera cranes and shakes and tracks and zooms with impunity, and the edits come fast and furious as the film tries to keep up with the action. The soundtrack is peppered with radio chatter and the chop of helicopters. As the men progress toward their target, editing cuts us back and forth from the soldiers on the ground to a command center where nervous brass watch the mission unfold on a massive bank of monitors as the camera swirls around them. Then the firefight begins. Our soldiers take heavy casualties in the initial rush of action, but ultimately regroup and prevail. If not for the giant space robots fighting alongside them, we might be forgiven for thinking we’re in the world of a military recruitment commercial (like this or this) and not Michael Bay’s blockbuster sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

It’s often said that certain films look as if they were advertisements for joining the U.S. Military, but a handful might be said to actually draw their images from them; the number of these has increased commensurate with the growing oeuvres of filmmakers like Bay, Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Berg, and others obsessed with on-screen combat veracity. The verisimilitude of Michael’s Bay’s hyperbolic cinema hasn’t gone much remarked upon, but if the above quote—given to Forbes by Lt. Colonel Bishop, then a military-Hollywood liaison who worked as an advisor on the set of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (at the White Sand Missile range in New Mexico)—is any indication, perhaps there’s more at work in his action spectacles than meets the eye. When we watch Revenge of the Fallen and feel an uncanny familiarity accompanying images of soldiers on a night raid or readying for battle in the desert, and we come to expect some sort of a tagline (“Army Strong!”) to slam onto the screen at any moment to the tune of an earworm jingle, whose handiwork are we watching? Are these bits of action Michael Bay at his best, or do these images belong to someone else? What is the point at which influence intersects with and overwhelms authorship? And can this really ever be teased out and defined?

Regarding the question of influence on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Bishop himself has written something of a Rosetta stone on the website for his post-service military-entertainment consulting company AWN (All Warriors Network): “About 25 years ago this Kentucky boy had a dream to go to film school . . . but Kentucky and film school were worlds apart. The path ‘from here to there’ was simply insurmountable . . . until I saw a ‘Be All You Can Be’ commercial on TV that changed my life.” In use by the military from 1980 to 2001 (it was replaced for a few years by “Army of One” before today’s “Army Strong” arrived), “Be All You Can Be” capped off dozens of advertisements for the U.S. Army from that period. It’s the seminal commercial from my childhood, and it doesn’t take much deep recall to pull up at least a half-dozen or so of the tagline’s musical iterations: guitar-laden and upbeat, solemn and orchestral, breezily Bacharach. It clearly worked its way into Bishop’s subconsciousness, so much that he enlisted and rose through the ranks to find himself assisting in designing the battlefield choreography for Revenge of the Fallen.

For all of that slogan’s primacy over a certain generation’s imagination, what still may be the Army’s most iconic image and slogan is the one created by James Flagg in 1917 to draw young men into World War I: Uncle Sam, sternly pointing a bony finger right at the viewer with one bushy white eyebrow raised. “I WANT YOU,” reads the text. It’s certainly catchier than a similar invitation to enlist from the Revolutionary War period: “To all brave, healthy, able bodied and well disposed young men, in this neighborhood, who have any inclination to join the troops now raising under General Washington for the defence of the liberties and independence of the United States, against the hostile designs of foreign enemies.” What’s intriguing about the history of military advertising is how its strategies of address have changed to keep up with the times. This is relevant here because Bay’s Revenge of the Fallen borrows not only its shooting and editing strategies from the U.S. Military but also its up-to-the-minute war gadgetry; the film’s production team actively courted a relationship with the military to get vehicles for free to help keep costs in line.

“Today’s army is the most mechanized freedom force ever assembled,” announces this jaunty spot from 1962, which attempts to tantalize potential conscripts by showcasing all the fun tanks and artillery one is granted time to play with. The Flagg ad was about creating in the viewer a sense that a conscript was being called to greatness, that every able-bodied male locking eyes with Uncle Sam might have something within him to offer his country. But the 1980s’ message “Be All You Can Be” is drastically different. The offer has changed (advertisements like the one that Bishop saw communicate that the U.S. Army would trade his service time for a paid college education, a far cry from mere “I WANT YOU”), but so has the aesthetic. That focus on gear and cool stuff emerges. The cutting picks up, unity of space and time is thrown out the window. The army doesn’t want you anymore, it wants the version of you that it will create to fit its own needs, and you will have an exciting time being remade (this mechanization of humanity through military training was well-noted by Starship Troopers). The equation of the recruit with heavy machinery finds a kind of sick apotheosis here; as a soldier-to-be narrates the people in his life who have inspired him—teachers, elders—the film fades warm images of home into and out of tanks and helicopters on the battlefield. The recruitment ads from the eighties and nineties seem less about making the potential recruit feel wanted than making him or her want the U.S. Army.

What is Michael Bay’s cinema if not one of gear and other cool stuff? Of course, across the 150-minute bloat of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, there are scenes that don’t contain giant robots fighting, guns blazing, or awesome cars moving at top speed. But something strange happens in such scenes, especially the first following the opening raid. It details a simple interaction: Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is headed off to college, his parents are alternately grief-stricken and elated with pride; the boy just wants to talk to his hot girlfriend one more time before he leaves. (Here, Megan Fox’s body is ogled by the camera with the same lascivious eye as the film’s tanks and Camaros.) Why is the cutting so bewilderingly fast and the dialogue delivered with a staccato rapidity that suggests screwball comedy on speed? Is this velocity merely so that the film can jet through the establishment of character and basic plot to get to the next robot fight? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen actually almost seems to slow with the arrival of each meticulously choreographed action sequence.

There’s a discomfort with the human in Michael Bay’s Transformers films, such that all we really are encouraged to remember are moments of militaristic spectacle. (Across the series of four films, the only characters he’s managed to create empathy for are CG robots.) But that military recruiting feel that creeps in any time Revenge of the Fallen begins an action sequence extends well beyond the film’s images. Consider Steve Jablonsky’s score, heavy on martial drumbeat, swelling strings, and stentorian brass. It’s stirring enough that it’s been copied in turn by the U.S. Army for recent ads. Scenes on the “homefront” feature that warmly nostalgic glow common both to most war films and military recruitment spots. And lest we think for a second that the employment of sci-fi tropes negates a piece’s efficacy for recruitment, we should remember this gem, a highly successful 1980s TV spot arguing that the U.S. Marines are the modern-day equivalent of the brave knights of olde. The degree to which contemporary military recruitment relies, successfully, on varying degrees of wish fulfillment (just like Hollywood), suggests more troubling things about the human psyche than there’s room to unpack in this space.

As with many propagandistic pieces, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen trips itself up in the delivery. Think of how John Huston’s Let There Be Light, commissioned as an uplifting document about the recovery of soldiers from their mental scars, ends up almost wholly downbeat. The horrors at its core are just too great to bear. Revenge of the Fallen is clearly no Let There Be Light, but it still doesn’t paint a terribly attractive portrait of life as a soldier. Yes, in it an elite military task force of serious dudes gets to fight alongside alien space robots (cool!), but most often they do so ineffectively. Scads of men are mowed down, crushed by robots, or otherwise eviscerated. And, as with all the Transformers films, the final kill is left to the film’s true hero, Autobot leader Optimus Prime. The human characters merely watch on in awe.

Even so, the Transformers films remain incredibly popular, and none made more money than Revenge of the Fallen. They’re more than just massively marketed products, they’re actually selling something people want. Bay came to filmmaking from advertising, and he knows what he’s doing, knows the implications of cozying up to product lines and the military and bringing on battlefield advisors. He has noted with his characteristic subtlety: “People say it’s whoring out, but it’s not. Advertising is in our lives. It’s unavoidable. To think you can’t have it in a movie isn’t real life.” Thus he draws from wherever he likes. This is the same hubris that allows the film a prologue set in 17,000 B.C. that poorly cribs from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the same hubris that allows for wanton Christ referencing in Optimus Prime’s sacrifice and rebirth. But there’s something to the inclusion of military imagery that doesn’t feel like bold appropriation; it’s too easy, too comfortable. Bay’s internalized how the military wants itself to look on film as absorbed by years of advertisements glorifying combat and service, and he hired consultants to make sure he got it right. Just in case.

Given the argument I’ve just attempted to lay out, one could just as easily argue Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is authored by Hasbro, or the various car companies that donated vehicles so they could be destroyed onset. It’s in many ways a perfect iteration of contemporary industrial entertainment, existing as it does at the nexus of vast interests who look for any avenue through which to feed us their products. And we are certainly biting. But along with the heavily patriotic imagery of men in battle comes the transmission of a certain set of ideological concerns. Concerns that, given what is known about Bay’s politics, confirm why these kinds of war images fit so neatly into his films. Is anyone surprised that, that after four installments of a series that builds itself from the iconography of military advertisements, he would then move to create his own? Let’s all be ready for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, coming soon to a theater near us. All the right moves, and with the right’s politics to boot.