The makers of '13 Hours' are trying to have their Benghazi politics both ways.
Ex-CIA contractors Kris "Tanto" Paronto, Mark "Oz" Geist, and John "Tig" Tiegen are currently on a nationwide publicity tour promoting 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Michael Bay's new combat porno based on their accounts of the 2012 attacks on the US diplomatic compound in Libya. The function of this press tour, it seems, is to convince journalists like me that the movie (adapted from a book the trio co-authored) isn't "political" or partisan—just a concise reenactment of the attacks as they saw them.
"There was no politics when we were out fighting that night," Geist told me in an interview. Paronto, the most outspoken of the three, chimed in: "Discussing politics dishonors the truth that occurred that night—it dishonors the courageous acts," he declared. "We're trying to honor everyone that was involved, including those that died."
This has been Paramount's company line on 13 Hours. "It feels like it was hard for people to buy a ticket if they were more liberal leaning," Rob Moore, the studio's vice chairman, told Variety, explaining the film's lackluster performance at the box office. "It's sad that this gets turned into a political debate as opposed to a conversation about who did the right thing and who was heroic."
But this argument is more than a bit disingenuous. If the studio didn't want 13 Hours to seem like a partisan effort, they probably shouldn't have dispatched their secret soldiers to do interviews with almost every primetime anchor at Fox News—an outlet that has arguably done more than any other to turn #Benghazi into a partisan issue. Further, they probably shouldn't have screened the film for select conservative journalists long before showing it to anyone in the mainstream press.
But this has been the studio's two-pronged strategy to promote Bay's new film: lather up Benghazi-obsessed conservatives through the appropriate media channels, then reassure liberal audiences that the film is just a classic tale of American heroism, one that has nothing to do with politics.
Tig, Tanto, and Oz have been at the forefront of this effort. One night, they're on Fox News' The Kelly File, discussing the alleged stand-down order they claim prevented the rescue of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens; the next day, it's Good Morning America, where they insist that only the militants who launched the attack are responsible for the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans.
Certainly, the three men stand to benefit from a public rehashing of the Benghazi controversy—particularly Paronto, the natural showman of the bunch. When he's not promoting 13 Hours, or running a side business as an insurance adjuster, the loquacious former Army Ranger is trying himself out as a motivational speaker. He says he wants a reality show and, considering his manic energy, he could very well get one. Punditry can sustain careers like these, and it may well have to—all five of the surviving members of the annex security team in Benghazi had to cut ties with the CIA in order to go public with their story.
"We'd all love pretty much to return to the battlefield," Tiegen told me, a bit solemnly. "We did it for ten years, help keep the terrorists over there. But, doing the book, getting the truth out, we're not allowed to work for them no more."
The CIA evidently isn't thrilled with the contractors' account of what happened in Benghazi, particularly their widely-publicized claim that the agency's base chief in Benghazi, a man known only as "Bob," ordered the security team to "stand down" during the initial attack. The team claims that this order tragically stalled rescue efforts at the nearby diplomatic compound, resulting in the deaths of Stevens and a member of his staff. The CIA denies that there was ever a stand-down order; a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Benghazi seems to back up this conclusion.
In the nether regions of the Tea Party imagination, that "stand-down" emanated straight from Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, or both. 13 Hours keeps the fever dream alive, depicting the security team waiting impatiently outside the annex after the stand-down order, as "Bob" blabbers on the phone to undisclosed persons. (The real "Bob" disputes this account, but admitted to the Washington Post that the deployment to the consulate was delayed as he tried to enlist support from local militias.)
More brazenly, 13 Hours also sustains the now firmly debunked theory that American forces could have sent air support to help end the attack, but that the military chose not to deploy planes that could have reached Benghazi. "The defense assets were moving," Paronto told me, in keeping with the narrative of the film. "The question is why they stopped." It's fairly clear that this just didn't happen. A report by the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee found that the military didn't have any combat-ready aircraft available close enough to Benghazi to do anything about the attack.
Pablo Schreiber as Kris 'Tanto' Paronto, John Krasinski as security contractor Jack Silva, and David Denman as Dave 'Boon' Benton. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
The film breathes new life into the already widespread conspiracy theories that have fueled the right's Benghazi obsession and turned everyone else off the subject entirely. On the left, the increasingly confused Fox News narrative about the attacks has produced an almost aggressive disinterest in the topic. Many otherwise highly informed people have elected to learn nothing about the subject. The din of partisan bickering about stand-downs and CIA talking points has drowned out murkier questions about what the US was actually doing in Benghazi.
A Michael Bay flick should not be expected to contribute much toward answering these questions. The best one can hope to get out of 13 Hours is a survey of contemporary Orientalist tropes. "It's hot as balls here and you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys," one hero says to another, early in the film, deadpan. Outwardly, at least, Bay avoids the roiling political controversy connected to the events in his film. But in ignoring the deeper issues surrounding Benghazi, 13 Hours pushes a distinctly partisan narrative about the attacks.
For evidence of this, we don't have to look much further than Donald Trump, who invited Iowa supporters to a free screening of the film last week. Beyond giving Republican audiences an opening to attack Clinton, 13 Hours seems to call for Trump's brand of hypermasculine, gut-centric, nativist leadership—someone who would have bombed the hell out of the entire nation of Libya just to get our boys out in time, and then taken some oil just to prove the point.
Krasinski and TV personality Kevin Frazier attend the Dallas premiere of "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" at the AT&T Dallas Cowboys Stadium last week. Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures
Trump will likely have been satisfied with the film's depictions of Muslims. Apart from the obvious shots of men praying next to their AK-47s, most of the locals depicted in 13 Hours are either creeping sharia zombies, scowling bystanders, or unreliable opportunists. Apparently realizing that this called for a "good local," the screenwriters contrived one: Amal is a Libyan translator working at the annex (Iranian-American actor Peyman Moaadi brings a Persian accent to the role), who anxiously follows our boys into combat, developing a very subservient friendship with them in the process, only to be seen off at the end with this sage advice: "Your country gotta figure this shit out, Amal."
The character was added during the conversion from book to film: In the original text, the helpful translator is called Henry, and described as a 60-something American citizen of Middle Eastern heritage. In other words, an Arab-American hero was converted into a trusty, but childish, local servant.
While the contractors I spoke to maintained that none of this amounts to a political message, they happily agreed that the overarching message of the film is unusually patriotic.
"It is a very patriotic movie. I think we've lost a little bit of that in America, which leads to a loss of civil service. In that way, I think 13 Hours is very important for our society and pop culture. There's an underlying Christian theme, as well!"
The film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is now playing nationwide.