The name “Hillary Clinton” is not uttered once throughout the nearly interminable length of Michael Bay’s Benghazi action film 13 Hours . President Obama is never mentioned either. But I hadn’t been in the lobby of a recent screening for more than 30 seconds before I overheard the tail end of a Hillary joke.
In 2016, the scandal hunters of the GOP have not managed to pin any more misdeeds on Clinton than she has already admitted to herself; in fact, she’s made herself look better and embarrassed her opponents in the face of their relentless questioning. And yet the conservative press has so thoroughly succeeded in appending her name to the word “Benghazi” that her shadow figuratively lurks over any mention of those tragic attacks in that Libyan city — and it certainly looms large over Bay’s new film, whose release right before the Iowa caucuses, as Clinton flounders a bit in the polls, feels suspiciously timed at best.
Unquestionably, the publicity around the film will dredge up a story that has been unearthed and buried more times than Congress has unsuccessfully attempted to repeal Obamacare (they’re still trying), and the chattering classes agree: this is certainly not good news for her campaign. Headlines are already making this clear: “The Movie Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Want You to See”; “The Movie Hillary Clinton Should Be Very, Very Worried About”; and the more staid “Timing of Movie About Benghazi Attack Could Test Clinton in Iowa Caucuses.”
But I really don’t think 13 Hours will significantly hurt Clinton with Democratic primary voters, who are more likely to turn away from her campaign because they see her as too warlike. No, the people who choose to see Bay’s bellicose, puerile film and get misty-eyed at its obvious shots of burly army types and an American flag languishing in a swimming pool languishing in a gunshot-ridden courtyard — and are actually influenced by such scenes — are likely not Clinton fans to begin with.
A far bigger concern about the film’s political impact, or the climate it reflects, was highlighted for me by the fact that I viewed it the very same night I saw President Obama give his final State of the Union address. In his speech, he pleaded for a less facile and divided national discourse, asking for more nuance, more cooperation, more listening and thinking. After seven years in office, the president lamented the fragmented nature of the political dialogue, saying it was his major regret.
What a study in contrasts. “[Democracy] doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic,” Obama said, even as amateur pundits sat behind their keyboards getting ready to denounce critics of 13 Hours‘ dubious artistic value as, well, unpatriotic. “Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us,” POTUS continued, as the undisputed (and not very pretty) facts of the Benghazi case continue to get contested over and over again in a numbing number of hearings that have all essentially laid bare the same truths. “Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention,” he continued, as Donald Trump continued to surge in the polls.
Truthfully, 13 Hours is the kind of movie that will appeal to people who do not understand the president’s message at all, appealing directly to white male paranoia about being usurped and endangered by “PC” hordes and their foreign pals. The film is effective at encouraging the belief that considering any moral space between pure (American) good and pure evil is a worthless endeavor, as our own Jason Bailey notes: “There is no nuance or shading; our six protagonists are ‘good guys;” and everyone else is a ‘bad guy,’ full stop”. Not a single one of our burly soldiers has a flaw, while any redemption for its few Muslim, female and effete characters comes too late in the film to matter.
Meanwhile, the faceless Libyan antagonists who get shot down like zombies (they’re literally crawling through a space like Zombieland), as well as the local “allies” who mostly cut and run when it’s time to help the Americans, are hardly a good argument against the scary surge of Islamophobia at home. The film’s one loyal Libyan gets as his reward a brusque parting and an admonition that his country must get its shit together (as to who came in and further messed up said shit, the film never asks that question). Moderate Libyans already consider the movie an insult; they’re right to.
It’s a disappointing reflection of a strain of American thinking that simply won’t die. I will argue until I am blue in the face for the value of shallow entertainment, but attempts to market simplistic jingoism, with a strong slice of xenophobia, sexism, and anti-intellectualism as a “serious” film during election season are at the very least worthy of a disappointed head-shake. 13 Hours feeds into Trumpism, the kind of thinking that promotes bullying rather than analyzing: strong vs. weak, us vs. them, foreigners vs. real Americans, viewing those Americans who are inclined to trust foreigners and try to negotiate with them as traitorously incompetent. As David Edelstein wrote, “It’s a two-hour, ‘I told you so.'” (Actually, it’s a two-hour-and-20-minute I told you so, and you feel every second its length and more.)
The truth about the attacks in Benghazi, to the extent that we can know it, seems to be one full of small mess-ups and shared blame, as impartial inquiries have determined: “relatively minor, individual mistakes may have added up to something larger.” Failures belong to everyone involved, the Obama administration included, as well as many federal agencies and many folks on the ground. Of course this is so: when bad things are allowed to happen, there’s very rarely a single answer, or an easy split between heroes and those who stand in their way.
With the current situation in the Middle East — nay, around the world — so incredibly volatile, and people on both sides getting hot around the collar in favor of an epic clash of civilizations, we could really use some smart entertainment that asks the hard questions and steps away from promoting the optics of sophomoric confrontation. Instead, we get witch-hunting committees on Capitol Hill and 13 Hours in our movie theaters. That reality should have more people than just Hillary Clinton concerned.