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Critics Hate Benghazi Film They Haven't Seen

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Michael Bay’s "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" might not turn out to be the biggest film of 2016, but it could prove the most controversial. The studio released a two-and-a-half-minute trailer this week, and already critics are denouncing what little they've seen.

Bay’s gaudy, implausible popcorn movies -- the "Transformer" series, for instance -- are often derided as "Bayhem." But this time the director is engaging a more serious theme, the 2012 attack on two U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. 

Given the subject matter, Deadline.com was probably on the money in its whimsical description of "13 Hours" as "a film whose topic is sure to make holiday dinners civil, polite affairs." The book on which the film is based, however, expressly disclaims any ideological intentions. So does Bay.

Not everyone is buying the disclaimers. The trailer has been dissected with the micrometric exactitude usually reserved for early looks at sci-fi franchises being taken over by J. J. Abrams.

Certainly Max Fisher of Vox seems to have made up his mind about "13 Hours" already: "Based on the trailer, it appears that Bay's movie will attempt to squeeze and contort the painful events of Benghazi into a neat and emotionally satisfying narrative: Brave American military heroes must overcome cowardly suits and shoot a bunch of bad guys so that they may save the day."

Fisher worries that the film will do for Benghazi what he seems to think Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" did for torture -- sell people a false narrative:

Americans care about what really happened in Benghazi, and they should: It was a significant event for U.S. foreign policy and U.S. politics. But it's been confused by three years of partisan spin, mud fights, and conspiracy theories. Americans have to sort through a lot of noise to get to the truth.

Fisher is hardly alone in his concerns. Here's Scott Mendelson, writing in Forbes: "I can only presume from Bay's politics ("The Island" was an 'abortion = holocaust' parable, "Bad Boys II" cheerfully embraces the abuse-of-authority of its reckless cop heroes, and the "Transformers" sequels are Neocon fables) that it won’t exactly be The Nation's favorite action picture."

There's nothing new in the accusations that Bay's films contain unsubtle conservative messages. But these responses to what is, after all, only what Hollywood calls a "teaser" seem a little over-the-top. I've studied the trailer five or six times now, and I still haven't found the subtly embedded codes that are going to transform me into a happily flapping member of the right wing.

True, the tag line -- "When everything went wrong, six men had the courage to do what was right" -- suggests that the film will portray the guards involved in the rescue as heroes. I'm not sure why this should be a problem. It's undisputed that they went to the aid of the consulate at a dangerous moment. All six were employees or contractors of the Central Intelligence Agency's Global Response Staff, which the book describes as "bodyguards for spies, diplomats and other American personnel in the field." One could argue, I suppose, that they were only doing their jobs. But this proposition would pretty much put an end to war movies.

Besides, we're talking about Michael Bay. Chances are the film will be heavy on chasing, shooting and blowing things up. 

But there's an additional political consideration: the potential effect of the film's timing on the election cycle. In Forbes, Mendelson predicts that Bay's thriller, set to open exactly one year after "American Sniper," will "be something of a lightning rod basically a month away from the Iowa caucuses which will basically kick off the primary election process for the 2016 presidential race."

This is a lot of weight to place on a movie. The book on which "13 Hours" is based hardly mentions Hillary Clinton until the end, when the authors offer a reasonably evenhanded account of the controversy over the State Department's contemporaneous public statements about the attacks. 

On the other hand, the culture is nowadays so hopelessly saturated with electoral politics that anything is possible. Some of Clinton's critics seem delighted that the film is coming. A New York Post column on the film is headlined "The movie Hillary Clinton should be very, very worried about." A quick perusal of the Twitter commentary under the hashtag #13hours will show a heavy preponderance of Hillary-bashers.

But a film can't influence the voters unless the voters go see it. And although every studio dreams of releasing a war epic that will rival the $350 million in domestic box office earned by "American Sniper," the new film's numbers are projected to be closer to those of "Lone Survivor" ($125 million) or "Zero Dark Thirty" (which was so controversial that it's easy to forget it didn't even hit the $100 million mark).

Still, the critics of "13 Hours" are half-right. Libya deserves a serious place in our political conversation. Not Benghazi alone, but what's happened to the country since the U.S.-led war helped topple Muammar Qaddafi. Islamic State is rapidly gaining a foothold. There are multiple governments. One faction this week sentenced Qaddafi's son and heir to death, but he's the prisoner of another. "Nowadays," The Economist grimly concluded, "Libya is barely a country at all."

But I'm not sure why the burden of our inability to discuss the disaster U.S. policy helped bring about should rest on Michael Bay's shoulders. He's merely providing an entertainment.  Certainly, it's far too early to convict him of heavy-handed ideological pandering on the basis of a film nobody has seen. 

  1. In fairness, Mendelson makes clear that he does not judge a film by its politics. In any case, his anti-Bay diatribe isn't nearly in a class with New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane's classic dismissal of the politics of George Lucas's Star Wars hexalogy: "What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence." 

  2. One unspoken irony that bears mention: Filming took place principally on the island of Malta, a prominent resident of which happens to be the current U.S. ambassador ... to Libya. The embassy moved to Malta last year because Libya is too dangerous. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net