COLUMBIA, S.C. — On Wednesday, the day before the latest Republican presidential debate on Fox Business, sister channel Fox News brought on guests who had become quite familiar: The family members of men killed in the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks. There was Charles Woods, father of the late Tyrone Woods, saying the family was brought to tears by the film "13 Hours." There was Jeremiah Woods, brother of the victim, saying the film had "the touch of people who were actually there."
And there was Patricia Smith, mother of the late Sean Smith, who struggled to keep her composure. Like Woods, she said she had been lied to by Hillary Clinton, told that the maker of the video "Innocence of Muslims" was the reason the Benghazi consulate had been overrun.
"As soon as Sean came onscreen, or the person who portrayed him, I couldn't handle it," she said. She paused. "Hillary's a liar! I know what she told me!"
Megyn Kelly lowered her voice. "Oh, Pat. I know it must be so hard," she said. "So many people want to put this behind them, and say, Hillary sat there, she testified for her own 13 hours. They say it's done. They say there's no story about Benghazi."
This week, no one was really saying that. Some movies spark a new national conversation. Michael Bay's dramatization of the event that most people now simply call "Benghazi" has simply elevated the conversation that, on the right, never ended. The story of the horrified relatives, for example -- the people who met their secretary of state and journaled what seemed to be big, fat lies -- has saturated conservative media and struggled to break through elsewhere.
Just as receipts for Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" had been read for proof of a pro-cop boycott, this weekend's sales of "13 Hours" could be a test of public interest in a story that the Democratic Party has pronounced over and handled.
On Friday night, Donald Trump's campaign had even bought out a screening of "13 Hours" at a theater in Urbandale, Iowa. One time zone away, the conservative oppo group America Rising was hosting its own Washington, D.C., screening, to be followed by remarks from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). "Without even appearing in the movie, 13 Hours is an indictment of the failed leadership and bad judgment of Secretary Clinton,” said Colin Reed, executive director of America Rising PAC, in a statement.
And before any of that, at Thursday night's Republican debates, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) made unusual pitches for their audiences to check out the movie.
"Whether it's you're watching that movie this weekend that just came out when we abandoned our men and women in Benghazi, or whether it's we treat Iran, that gave courtesies to our sailors, as they made them record a hostage video, let me tell you this," said Santorum. "If you choose to serve this country, I will have your back."
Cruz said much the same thing: "If I am elected president, to every soldier and sailor and airman and marine, and to every police officer and firefighter and first responder who risk their lives to keep us safe, I will have your back."
Both men were invoking a heartrending moment in the Benghazi story, and the story of "13 Hours" -- a moment that a former CIA chief in the city has described as false. Speaking to the Washington Post this week, the anonymous chief denied that anyone gave a "stand down" order to the security officers who learned of attacks on the city's American consultant and rushed to fight back.
The idea of another "stand down" order has haunted Clinton and President Obama through multiple investigations, to the dismay of the people conducting them. While the House Armed Services Committee has determined that the military did scramble resources to back up the defense of the consulate, and that they simply could not arrive in time to save Tyrone Woods or Sean Smith, the idea that some feckless bureaucrat had made resources "stand down" survives in Michael Bay's dramatization.
"At times, the film provides a broader perspective, briefly detailing the deployment of special operations forces and F-16s prepping on the tarmac," Media Matters analyst Matthew Gertz wrote on Friday. "But most of the film is tightly centered on the events on the ground in Benghazi, and so it never explains why they don't show up."
On Friday night, when Cruz campaigned in Columbia, multiple members of his audience said they planned to see "13 Hours." All of them expected to see a movie that reflected the disastrous, disqualifying work of Hillary Clinton's State Department.
"I heard all about it on Glenn Beck's show last night," said Sonia "Sunny" O'Donovan, 75. "The guys who were talking last night, the people who were there, cried when they saw the movie."
Gary Spragg, 71, said that he would head to the cinema for an "action movie," and nothing about it would change his view of events.
"Let me tell you something from the perspective of someone who's dealt with the State Department," said Spragg, a Vietnam War veteran. "The State Department is incompetent. That didn't start in 2009. The Peter Principle is very much in effect over there."
Over the course of the week, only one Republican seemed able or inclined to shrug at the movie's existence. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of the House's Select Committee on Benghazi, attended Thursday's debate, then entered the spin room to talk excitedly about Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and exhaustedly about Benghazi.
"I've lived it for three years," he told a group of reporters. "It would be okay if I went a night without hearing about it."
When pressed, Gowdy admitted that he had not seen the movie. "I have interviewed the book authors," he said. "The transcript of those interviews is what I'm going to rely on, not the movie."
And before he left the spin room, Gowdy was asked if he ever intended to see "13 Hours."
"My wife has ten Hallmark movies lined up for me to watch," Gowdy said. "When we do that, I might."