“13 Hours” — the movie and the politics

Last night, I attended a showing of “13 Hours,” Michael Bay’s movie about the Benghazi attacks. The movie will be out next week. I believe our readers will find it very much worth seeing.

Let’s start by discussing “13 Hours” qua movie and then move on to the politics of it.

“13 Hours” succeeds as cinema despite (or maybe for me because) it doesn’t follow the usual Hollywood formula. There is no romance, though one very attractive female appears in a minor role. There is no tension among the main characters — the special contractors who provided security at the CIA annex. (There is plenty of tension with the CIA station chief, but it is one dimensional). There is little emphasis on character development.

Instead, the movie is essentially a combat film. A big chunk of it consists of fighting in one form or another.

It is also an attempt to tell a true story — that of the Benghazi attacks and the valiant and successful efforts by the contractors to save the lives of Americans under attack. Bay relied on the accounts of several of the contractors as presented in their book. These contractors also worked as consultants and the film. As such, from what I understand, they insisted on a faithful recreation of the core events, as they saw them.

The combat sequences are as riveting as they are horrifying. Bay has done a phenomenal job of presenting the surreal killing field from which the CIA annex was attacked. Offhand, I can’t think of anything I’ve seen in cinema quite like it, though Sergio Leone comes to mind.

But what really makes “13 Hours” frightening is its portrayal of a city in which the protagonists have no way to tell who the enemy is. As one critic says:

Friend, foe and non-interested spectator are indistinguishable on crowded streets. Ambush always seems likely. The feeling of dread permeates Bay’s depiction of Benghazi and sets up the foreboding feeling that the CIA mission there is hopelessly in over its head.

The last sentence of this quotation brings us to the politics of the movie. Variety says that “’13 Hours'” is light on politics but sure to stir political controversy.” I agree, though I would substitute “subtle” for “light.”

This is Hugh Hewitt’s take:

The movie mentions neither the president nor the then secretary of state by name, and no expressed argument is made as to what the two did or didn’t do to assist their embattled ambassador, his staff, and the CIA Benghazi outpost on Sept. 11, 2012. But the overwhelming impression of the huge number of people certain to see the first big release of the year, will be that they did not do enough.

In fact, it will be that they did nothing at all. Nothing.

The early sequences of the movie show that security at the Benghazi consulate and annex was obviously and woefully inadequate. The conclusion is inescapable that Hillary Clinton’s State Department should either have closed the consulate or beefed up security substantially.

These are, respectively, the “during” and “before” components of the Benghazi scandal.

The “after” component also makes an appearance. Towards the end of the attack on the annex someone picks up on media reports that this began as a video-related protest. A security man at the consulate says, simply, that he saw no protest.

“13 Hours” is unsubtle in its insistence that the CIA station chief unreasonably directed the contractors not to try to rescue Ambassador Stevens and others at the consulate. It has the chief telling them to “stand down.”

This account is disputed by the station chief. Moreover, the contractors failed to persuade either the Democrats or the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that there was a “stand down” order. Their sworn testimony fell short, in the view of Committee staff.

In any event, this question has no political relevance (though casual viewers may assume otherwise). No one has suggested that the station chief was getting orders from the Obama administration; in fact, one of the contractor-authors told Sean Hannity he doesn’t think the order came from above. The chief’s “stand down” order, if given, was his idea.

The politically relevant “stand down” was the failure to deploy U.S. assets in relatively nearby countries to aid the embattled heroes trying to defend the annex. At one point, this is presented graphically through an image of inactivity at a U.S. air field.

Hillary Clinton explains the failure by citing “the fog of war.” Others cite logistical complexities.

These sound like plausible excuses, and maybe they are. But when you watch the movie, they feel terribly inadequate. As Hugh says:

“13 Hours” is going to tell everyone who is interested — and millions will be interested, and riveted, by the intense gunfight that breaks out early and never lets up until the dead are sent home — that the cries for help from the brave civilians and soldiers of Benghazi were many and urgent throughout the hours of attack. But the response was … silence.

Apart from issues of culpability, the movie has political implications because it reminds people what the Benghazi fuss is about. The Democrats’ line is: why are we still talking about Benghazi? More than three years after the attack and with numerous investigations into the matter, this line may be working.

But when one sees “13 Hours,” one understands the legitimacy of the quest for answers. And one can easily conclude that the answers provided by President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and their apologists haven’t been good enough.