By STEPHEN F. HAYES
From January 18, 2016 Issue
"This is a true story." Those words appear onscreen to open 13 Hours, the major motion picture about Benghazi, in theaters on January 15. And with them, director Michael Bay announced that he is taking sides in the long-running debate over the attacks there on September 11, 2012.
For three years, the White House and its defenders in the media have characterized the Libya raids as a tragedy, a series of unfortunate events that were utterly unpreventable and for which no one is much to blame. Many of those who were on the ground in Libya, CIA contractors and diplomats alike, see them as something quite different. To them, Benghazi represents bureaucratic indifference and incompetence before the attacks, deadly governmental indecision and fecklessness during the attacks, and official deception and dishonesty after the attacks.
This is their story. And the fact that it's a story familiar to readers of The Weekly Standard indicates that Bay, the man behind the blockbuster "Transformers" movies, has taken sides in a way that one might not expect from a successful Hollywood director.
The movie is based on the book of the same name, written by Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff with five CIA contractors who participated in the many battles in Benghazi that night. The authors announced in the book's introduction that they had sought to avoid the politics of Benghazi in favor of a fact-based account of what happened during the 13 hours of fighting there. And while the film tracks the book's narrative closely, Bay's depiction of the sense of abandonment felt by those men, as they wait for help that never arrives, heightens the outrage.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, as the film is titled in full, begins as CIA contractor Jack Silva leaves his family for Libya. Upon landing in Benghazi, Silva and a fellow contractor embark on what ought to be a routine trip to the CIA's secret annex. But as they make their way through the cluttered streets of Libya's second-largest city, a hostile gang of locals forces their vehicle to a stop at gunpoint, leading to a tense and chaotic exchange of lethal threats. They are allowed to pass, rattled but unharmed. It's a temporary reprieve.
The story is told largely through the eyes of Silva, played brilliantly by a bearded and newly bemuscled John Krasinski, best known for his role as the affable and sarcastic Jim Halpert on The Office, and four other CIA contractors—Mark "Oz" Geist, John "Tig" Tiegen, Kris "Tanto" Paronto, and "Boon." (Geist, Tiegen, and Paronto have spoken previously with TWS about their experiences and served as consultants on the movie.)
The film documents the contractors' concerns about security before the assault on September 11, 2012, making clear that the attack was not an isolated incident but the culmination of a long series of hostilities directed at Western targets. Even before the events of that day, viewers are led to understand the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe. The February 17th Martyrs Brigade, a Libyan militia the State Department engaged and ostensibly the good guys, is filled with shady characters, some of whom seem to know well in advance the plans of the jihadists who attack the diplomatic compound and the CIA annex. Hours before the attack begins, members of the local police force are observed conducting surveillance on the compound. Throughout the hours of fighting at both sites, when the Americans trying to repel the attacks see large groups of dark-skinned, heavily armed men show up to the battle, they cannot determine whether the new arrivals are there to help them or kill them.
This inability to distinguish friend from foe is disorienting in an extraordinarily powerful way. The vulnerability the disorder evokes is almost overwhelming, even as you sit safe in a theater eating your buttered popcorn and drinking your oversized Coke.
As the battle intensifies, the sense of helplessness produced by this confusion about the enemy is replaced by a growing outrage over the indecisiveness and willful impotence of the U.S. government. As the CIA contractors at the annex stand by their loaded vehicles and listen in real time to the desperate pleas for help from Americans under siege at the diplomatic compound, the CIA station chief repeatedly tells them they cannot go. Each time they call to Washington for help, even just to request a flyover, they're given excuses, not assistance. When a small team of security officials arrives from Tripoli, they're told to hold at the airport rather than rush to join the fighting. Pleas for military reinforcements from the Pentagon are rejected—again and again.
In one of the most affecting scenes of the film, Bay cuts briefly from the bedlam of the fighting and the desperation of the CIA contractors to a shot of U.S. fighter jets spinning their engines on an airstrip in Aviano, Italy. American power, idle.
The film never mentions Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But in subtle ways, it makes clear their weakness and dishonesty. The YouTube video that they would blame for the attacks is mentioned only in passing in a news report about Cairo airing in the background at the CIA annex. In between exchanges of gunfire and mortar, one U.S. official reports to others that the State Department has assigned blame for the attacks to the al Qaeda-linked fighters of Ansar al Sharia. Another official expresses bewilderment at claims from Washington that there had been a demonstration before the attack began. And the entire film renders absurd the notion that the attacks were not planned.
So what is the likely political impact of the movie, if any? For months, there has been speculation the film could damage the presidential prospects of Hillary Clinton. That's possible. It's certainly an effective critique of the Obama administration's misadventures in Libya and culpability in the Benghazi disaster
But if the film has any political impact, it seems far more likely to be on the Republican primary. It's not hard to imagine that there could be considerable overlap between the people who choose to see 13 Hours in its opening weeks and those who vote in the Republican primaries over the next several months. And that would likely lead to a boost for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Two dominant themes emerge from the film: 1) In the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya it was impossible to distinguish between good guys and bad guys. And, for that reason and others, 2) the U.S. government isn't very effective in its efforts to create order out of the inevitable instability that results from removing dictators.
These are arguments that have been central to the foreign policy case made by both of the GOP frontrunners, albeit with vastly different levels of sophistication. Trump's call for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration is a crude and offensive amplification of that first theme: It's impossible to identify good Muslims and weed out the bad ones, so ban them all. And Cruz has repeatedly warned about the dangers that can result from changing bad regimes in the greater Middle East.
Marco Rubio, who supported the removal of Muammar Qaddafi, consistently criticized how the Obama administration handled the intervention in Libya. He was right to do so and argues that the resulting chaos validated his objections. But his are nuanced arguments, and they come at a time when nuance doesn't seem to be working.
Whatever its impact, 13 Hours is a powerful film that is well worth seeing. From beginning to end, it forcefully rejects the sanitized, no-fault version of Benghazi. In scene after powerful scene, it assigns blame: to policymakers in Washington who naïvely overestimated our ability to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in post-Qaddafi Libya; to Washington bureaucrats who paid little attention to repeated warnings about the security of U.S. facilities in Benghazi; to CIA officials more concerned with career advancement and positive performance reviews than saving lives.
But perhaps the strongest indictment made by 13 Hours is an unspoken one. The film itself is an implicit but devastating critique of the American media that refused to report this story in this way, an establishment media that left to Hollywood the responsibility of telling these important truths.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.