‘13 Hours’: Benghazi movie makes for a political show

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Michael Bay’s patriotic spectacle about the Benghazi attack may well be the opening act of the 2016 campaign. Hitting movie theaters just ahead of presidential primaries, it has attracted conservative moviegoers but is falling flat among the liberals.

’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ is a dramatization of events from September 2012, when terrorist attacks on US facilities in eastern Libya left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Hillary Clinton, who is currently seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, was secretary of state at the time. Republicans have accused her of failing to adequately protect or rescue the trapped diplomat and his staff, and for attempting to deflect responsibility by blaming the violence on a YouTube video deemed offensive to Muslims.

READ MORE: Hillary’s Benghazi testimony punctuated by emails, anger, arguments

One of America’s best-known action directors, Bay was behind such box-office hits as ‘Bad Boys,’ ‘Armageddon’ and the ‘Transformers’ franchise. His 2001 romantic retelling of the Pearl Harbor attack was widely panned by critics, but still made money at the box office. With ‘13 Hours,’ the result seems to be just the opposite. 

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the movie made $19.6 million over the long weekend – far less than the $107.2 million that Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ raked in this time last year. ‘13 Hours’ played better in the conservative South, but “underperformed in liberal markets” in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

While explosion-laden spectacles of virtuous Americans killing scores of faceless foreign enemies normally pack theaters, part of Bay’s predicament is that the Benghazi incident is perceived in the US through the lens of politics, rather than patriotism.  

“Even if an unmentioned Hillary Clinton has nothing specific to worry about in regard to the film's content, its mere existence will stir up fresh talk about her behavior regarding the incident, and there's no doubt that Donald Trump fans will eat this up more enthusiastically than anyone,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy.

The Washington Post’s movie critic accused Paramount, the studio behind Bay’s production, of “dog-whistle marketing,” even as she acknowledged it does not mention Clinton or Obama by name.

“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,” wrote Ann Hornaday.

The film promotes “some of the most pernicious conspiracy theories about Benghazi out there,” argued Zack Beauchamp at the left-liberal Vox. It is “flatly false” that the CIA prevented the contractors from rescuing the ambassador, or that the US military refused to send in air support, Beauchamp wrote, citing official reports about the incident. 

On the other hand, conservatives are positively gushing about the film. Breitbart’s John Nolte called ’13 Hours’ a “compelling, unbearably tense, brilliantly choreographed action film.”

“The pacing is breathless, the acting superb, and no one’s humanity is forgotten in the process,” Nolte wrote, adding that Bay’s fury at the US government for abandoning its people in Benghazi is “both palpable and contagious.”

Stanley Kurtz of the National Review takes as a given that the movie’s audience “will disproportionately consist of Republican voters.” He sees the movie’s blue-collar protagonists as the “perfect stand-ins” for the voters flocking to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, calling them “Jacksonian” in a callback to early US history and the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

“Much more than a problem for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, 13 Hours may help push the public in the direction of the GOP’s Jacksonians in both the primaries and the general election,” Kurtz wrote.

The candidates certainly seem to think so. Cruz promoted the film during the GOP debate in South Carolina last Thursday, while Trump booked a Des Moines movie theater and gave out free tickets to ’13 Hours’ to Iowans.