Define political. Washington Post columnist Ann Hornaday offers up an acerbic look at 13 Hours that objects to the supposedly dishonest marketing of Michael Bay’s presentation of the sacking of the Benghazi consulate and the nearby CIA annex, based on the book of the same name written by the men who fought the battle. She accuses Paramount and Bay of talking out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to the political nature of the film, and the film itself of a dishonest approach to the story of Benghazi.
First off, Hornaday has a problem with the release date:
Presumably to avoid being Zero Dark Thirtied, the parent studio of “13 Hours,” Paramount Pictures, declined to show the film in advance to journalists and policymakers, eschewing the usual program of “influencers” screenings in Washington, which can garner valuable buzz for hot-button films. While they’ve run from the obvious political implications of “13 Hours” in the District, they’ve enthusiastically embraced them elsewhere, scheduling the film’s debut just weeks before the first presidential primaries and showing it to a select group of conservative publishers and commentators. (When critics began accusing “Zero Dark Thirty” of being an infomercial for Obama during the 2012 presidential campaign, it was bumped to a slot after the election.)
This is a very curious argument. Few people would presume that a recap of Benghazi would hurt Hillary Clinton or Democrats more broadly right before their primaries. The original release date for Zero Dark Thirty was October 2012, not January 2012, a date which would have had obvious implications for the general election. Furthermore, January is traditionally the worst time of the year for movie releases, usually reserved for films that studios think have little chance of gaining any traction. Those films have to compete with blockbusters released over the Christmas holiday and with a consumer environment in which most people are just starting to pay off their large holiday bills and don’t have much time for movies. If any political tinkering went into choosing a January release (and it almost certainly didn’t), it would be in the opposite direction Hornaday thinks.
She then accuses Bay and Paramount of setting up Republican PR efforts:
Even with Iowa and New Hampshire looming, with Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz ending his recent debate performance by urging his constituents to see “13 Hours” the next day, with conservative media saturated with ads for the movie and with Republican super PACs America Rising and Future45 showing “13 Hours” in Georgetown on Friday night in a spirited attempt to make Benghazi “a thing,” in the words of journalist Mary Katharine Ham — Paramount has insisted that the film is “not political.” That’s a whopper, even for an industry that has so brilliantly perfected the art of relieving itself on consumers and telling them that it’s raining.
What Paramount only pretends not to have known all along is that, of course, “13 Hours” is political, even if it isn’t explicitly partisan. Despite its dog-whistle marketing, the content of the film might disappoint the most rabid Hillary haters. Secretary Clinton is never invoked by name in the film, and the president is only mentioned in passing, when a character says that “POTUS has been briefed.” Rather than a red-meat attack on the Obama administration, “13 Hours” engages in a kind of diffuse, all-purpose cynicism about Washington as a familiar metonym for incompetence, corruption and bureaucratic inertia.
If it’s not partisan, then what’s the problem? That Republicans like it and recommend it? Hollywood has been making films “about Washington as a familiar metonym for incompetence, corruption and bureaucratic inertia” since Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Perhaps that makes it a clichéd film (hint: it doesn’t), but hardly makes Paramount or Bay dishonest in their approach to the film.
The real problem for Hornaday is that 13 Hours doesn’t fit her Benghazi narrative:
The villain of the piece, played with sniveling pusillanimity by David Costabile, is the CIA base chief (known only as “Bob”), who is portrayed as fatally impeding the rescue of the ambassador and his staff. Although the real-life chief insists that he never gave orders for his security team to stand down, as portrayed in the movie — and although a 2014 House Intelligence Committee report found “no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support” during the attacks — “13 Hours” conveys an unmistakable message: Unlike the arrogant elitists of the intelligence community or the naive idealists in the diplomatic corps, it’s the military (and their counterparts in the privatized world of security contractors) that has the know-how, technical chops and physical courage to make tough decisions and execute them correctly.
Actually, Hornaday gets this conclusion wrong — very wrong. The men who decide to act in 13 Hours worked for the CIA as security contractors, not the military (they were former military Special Ops), and the film takes some care in making that clear [see update]. The American military never shows up in the film, and they never showed up in Benghazi either — a point made repeatedly in the film. Hornaday seems to forget that Bay based the film on a book written by the men who made it out of Benghazi alive, and they insist that the stand-down order was given. (They aren’t alone on this, and the House investigation is still interviewing witnesses.) This film presents the point of view of the men who fought to stay alive that night for hours without any help at all from their country, and the film takes care to stick to their perspective. Questions about why the US was unprepared to assist an American outpost under attack for more than nine hours in the most dangerous setting in the world on the anniversary of 9/11 are left for the viewer to ponder. All these men know is that the US never acted, and that’s not political — that’s a plain fact.
Let’s get back to defining political. An attack on a consulate is a political act, in this case terrorism for political means. The response to such an attack involves politics at many levels. The reporting of such an attack involves politics, too, even when it comes to the first-person accounts of those who fought it and the full context of what preceded it. Films routinely cover such material, and become political, from the aforementioned Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Stand and Deliver and The Hurt Locker.
The real objection is when a film becomes partisan, not political. The American President would have been a fine comedy if it had not been ruined by its harsh partisan bent. My Fellow Americans was a much better film because it poked fun at the partisan divide. Both were political, but only one was dishonest about its intent. That’s the issue, and Hornaday admits smack in the middle that she doesn’t have a case; she just wants to gripe about the narrative.
After having seen the film on Saturday, I found that C. T. Rex’s review covered almost everything I wanted to say. The only quibble I have is on his rating, a 5 on the Hot Air scale:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
In this case, I’d give 13 Hours a 5+3 — see it in the theaters, and then buy the Blu-Ray when it becomes available. It’s not a quibble as much as it is a way to emphasize our recommendation to readers to see this film now, before it falls victim to the January blahs.
Update: As Warren notes in the comments, two of the men who came in from Tripoli with the late Glen Doherty were Delta force commandos — but they went on their own, without orders. I had forgotten about that, but the film only makes an oblique reference to their presence.