In a juxtaposition so perverse that it could only have been dreamt up in Hollywood, the holiday designated to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. — America’s most prominent practitioner of nonviolence — has become the go-to weekend for war movies.
This year’s entry is “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” Michael Bay’s visceral tick-tock of how six CIA security contractors tried to defend a secret agency annex and a State Department compound during a violent standoff in Libya in 2012. Aggressive, chaotic, suffused with patriotic swagger and a mournful sense of loss, “13 Hours” clearly seeks to capture the box-office success of such forebears as “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper.” Those similarly rousing accounts of real-life heroes earned $25 million and $107 million during the same period in 2013 and 2015, respectively, with “American Sniper,” about Iraq war sharpshooter Chris Kyle, ultimately raking in a breathtaking $350 million. (As of Sunday evening, “13 Hours” was poised to earn around $20 million for the holiday weekend.)
The film that started this recent trend was “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s taut dramatization of the search for and eventual killing of Osama bin Laden. Like “American Sniper,” Bigelow’s film opened in a handful of theaters on Christmas Day, expanding to thousands of screens in mid-January, by which time it had become mired in a passionate debate about whether it endorsed the use of torture. Although the controversy most likely (and unfairly) hurt “Zero Dark Thirty’s” chances at the Oscars, it wound up doing well at the box office: The meticulously constructed procedural would become the most financially successful of Bigelow’s career (earning more than $132 million).
Enter “13 Hours,” which revisits an episode that has become a smoking-hot talking point among critics of Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi attacks and who, along with President Obama, has faced an onslaught of allegations. Critics say they did not properly secure the U.S. diplomatic outpost, denied air support to those fighting for their lives on the ground and lied about the causes of the conflagration and bombings that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Presumably to avoid being Zero Dark Thirtied, the parent studio of “13 Hours,” Paramount Pictures, declined to show the film in advance to journalists and policymakers, eschewing the usual program of “influencers” screenings in Washington, which can garner valuable buzz for hot-button films. While they’ve run from the obvious political implications of “13 Hours” in the District, they’ve enthusiastically embraced them elsewhere, scheduling the film’s debut just weeks before the first presidential primaries and showing it to a select group of conservative publishers and commentators. (When critics began accusing “Zero Dark Thirty” of being an infomercial for Obama during the 2012 presidential campaign, it was bumped to a slot after the election.)
Even with Iowa and New Hampshire looming, with Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz ending his recent debate performance by urging his constituents to see “13 Hours” the next day, with conservative media saturated with ads for the movie and with Republican super PACs America Rising and Future45 showing “13 Hours” in Georgetown on Friday night in a spirited attempt to make Benghazi “a thing,” in the words of journalist Mary Katharine Ham — Paramount has insisted that the film is “not political.” That’s a whopper, even for an industry that has so brilliantly perfected the art of relieving itself on consumers and telling them that it’s raining.
What Paramount only pretends not to have known all along is that, of course, “13 Hours” is political, even if it isn’t explicitly partisan. Despite its dog-whistle marketing, the content of the film might disappoint the most rabid Hillary haters. Secretary Clinton is never invoked by name in the film, and the president is only mentioned in passing, when a character says that “POTUS has been briefed.” 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.
The villain of the piece, played with sniveling pusillanimity by David Costabile, is the CIA base chief (known only as “Bob”), who is portrayed as fatally impeding the rescue of the ambassador and his staff. Although the real-life chief insists that he never gave orders for his security team to stand down, as portrayed in the movie — and although a 2014 House Intelligence Committee report found “no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support” during the attacks — “13 Hours” conveys an unmistakable message: Unlike the arrogant elitists of the intelligence community or the naive idealists in the diplomatic corps, it’s the military (and their counterparts in the privatized world of security contractors) that has the know-how, technical chops and physical courage to make tough decisions and execute them correctly.
It’s a reassuring, if temptingly reductive, message, consonant with recent war films that have rejected boo-yah bellicosity for more restrained portraits of military operators as principled, highly skilled professionals. Even through the scrim of Bay’s bro-centric, fetishized fog of war, it’s possible to appreciate the harrowing acts of courage, self-sacrifice and service at the core of the story. But, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry secured the release of American prisoners in Iran just hours after “13 Hours” opened, the movie’s simplistic, shooting-good-talking-bad moral scheme began to ring impressively false. Maybe one day, State Department envoy Brett McGurk, who led the team that negotiated the release, will get his own big-screen blockbuster, even if it doesn’t feature prominent biceps, heavy ordnance and a careening SUV with its wheels on fire.
Even with such riveting events as the Iran breakthrough unfolding in the world of global realpolitik, “13 Hours” was on track to earn its expected box-office take this weekend. Just as unsurprisingly, it did especially well in Southern states and the Midwest (no word on how it did in Iowa, where GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump offered free tickets to his supporters).
“It feels like it was hard for people to buy a ticket if they were more liberal leaning,” Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice-chairman, told Variety on Sunday. “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.”
Of course, that’s what happens when you court a narrow market for your movies: The audiences you neglect don’t come (which probably cost Paramount money, in that viewers of all ideological stripes can enjoy “13 Hours” as a tense, hyper-kinetic action-adventure). Notwithstanding Moore’s distress that his strategy worked, for “13 Hours” to succeed with its advocates in the professional political class, the dollars it earns will have to be equaled by votes. Although it remains to be seen whether Bay’s movie is just exploding, squealing and screeching to the choir, its roll-out suggests that a weird but real synchrony exists between military movies and the holiday weekend they kick off.
If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Hollywood have anything in common, it’s the instinctive understanding of optics, and the unequaled power of images to arouse emotion. Just as King brilliantly deployed that power to shame, enrage and galvanize a nation, “13 Hours” evangelists are counting on it to help foment a movement of their own — to “make Benghazi a thing,” especially in November. By that time, “13 Hours” will be available and heavily marketed for home viewing — but remember, it isn’t political. And that’s why your leg is damp, even though there’s not a cloud in the sky.