Michael Bay, the man behind the Transformers movies and other poorly reviewed action flicks such as Bad Boys and Armageddon, once said of his own less-than-stellar reputation, "I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime."
Bay has just released the trailer for his latest movie for teenage boys. This one is not about giant robots or fast-talking, street-wise cops, but rather about a real-life incident: the 2012 attacks on US diplomatic and intelligence facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Maybe it's unfair to prejudge 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi based just on this trailer. But I am not optimistic about this movie: not about its fealty to reality and, more to the point, not about its likely effect on the political debate it seems designed to land squarely in the middle of.
That real-life incident on which the movie is based, typically shorthanded as "Benghazi," is deadly serious: Four Americans died in violence that was part of Libya's larger, still-growing chaos. The attack remains a live political controversy in the US, one that is bound to resurface during the presidential contest — which just so happens to coincide with the film's January 2016 release.
Bay's movie seems destined to make the American public's confusion over what happened in Benghazi and what it means much worse. It may well be the decisive nail in the coffin of the American public's effort to comprehend the Benghazi attack and its lessons.
A close reading of a very bad movie trailer
Based on the trailer, it appears that Bay's movie will attempt to squeeze and contort the painful events of Benghazi into a neat and emotionally satisfying narrative: Brave American military heroes must overcome cowardly suits and shoot a bunch of bad guys so that they may save the day. That should sound familiar; it's one of Hollywood's half-dozen or so standard cookie-cutter action movie plot lines.
The plot sketched out in the trailer is a reassuring and simple checklist of action movie tropes, like a security blanket for the audience, protecting them from the scary complexities of the real world. Tough, bearded American men must survive in a hostile land, which fortunately is easy because they are tough and bearded and willing to "die for your country."
Then a bad thing happens — brown people! explosions! — and the heroes fly into action. Shooting bad guys is no problem for these heroes, so surely victory is imminent.
But wait: A bureaucrat, played by an actor known for portraying weak, feckless men on various TV shows, tells the brave bearded men that they're not allowed to go bravely shoot the bad guys. The audience cannot help but hate the cowardly bureaucrat, and be happy when the bearded man shouts him down. The brave bearded heroes, the trailer suggests, will Do the Right Thing, even if that means defying orders. But will the heroes be heroic in time? Or will the bad orders from the cowardly bureaucrat ruin everything?
Actual Libyans are not really featured; the closest we get to a villain is the sniveling bureaucrat, who cares more about Following the Rules than about Doing What's Right. There's a reason that is a standard trope of Hollywood action flicks. These movies need to build up their heroes into unstoppable warriors, made invincible by their noble American ideals, which are fully realized when they find certain victory on the battlefield.
The real villain, then, is the bureaucrat who keeps them from that battlefield. That allows the heroes to not only triumph in battle, but also to be moral paragons whose righteousness transcends a world that does not sufficiently value them. This is how you give viewers the emotionally satisfying experience of rooting for heroes who simultaneously wield godlike power yet are also the underdog.
This trope has its roots in Vietnam-era films that sought to reconcile America's utter defeat with its sense of military pride; their answer was that our noble warriors only failed to triumph because the politicians stood in their way.
You can see why Bay would want to apply this model to real-life Benghazi, which Americans correctly perceive as a national failure. But leaning on the cliché of brave warriors made to stand down by a sniveling bureaucrat is so out of step with the reality of the incident, and so in line with the conspiracy theories that have plagued the incident, that you have to worry about how this movie will impact Americans' understanding of the real version.
Real Benghazi versus Michael Bay Benghazi
These tropes are not such a big deal when the subject matter is fictional. Action movies are pretty fun to watch, and Michael Bay is a master of the genre. But this Benghazi film comes in the middle of a still-raging political controversy over the attack, which itself is part of Americans' struggle to process why four of their own died in Libya and what that means for this country and its place in the Middle East. Unlike, say, Armageddon, which didn't come out at a moment of political controversy over a botched asteroid response, this isn't just a movie.
Americans care about what really happened in Benghazi, and they should: It was a significant event for US foreign policy and US politics. But it's been confused by three years of partisan spin, mud fights, and conspiracy theories. Americans have to sort through a lot of noise to get to the truth.
That is an important issue, and Bay's plan to convert it into popcorn sales seems unlikely to help the public understand what really happened. Indeed, the trailer alone manages to be a source of dangerously misleading misinformation on Benghazi.
First and most concerning is the idea that bureaucrats kept American military personnel from effectively responding to the attack, and thus contributed to the deaths that could have so easily been stopped. This myth has popped up in several different forms since the attack, and been refuted every time, including by a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. In fact, there were simply insufficient security personnel in the area to respond — a real failure, but not one that plays well in an action movie.
Bay's portrayal thus indulges, and risks perpetuating, the mistaken belief that one of the chief causes of the Benghazi deaths was a misguided order to "stand down." This is particularly dangerous given that for years, critics of Hillary Clinton have falsely contended that while secretary of state she gave a "stand down" order not to defend against the attack. Much as Zero Dark Thirty misled audiences into believing that torture helped us catch bin Laden, Michael Bay may mislead audiences into thinking that Clinton or one of her subordinates was responsible for Benghazi.
The film's most damaging decision, though, will likely turn out to also be its most understandable: an almost certain failure to engage with the real problems that led to the real deaths at Benghazi. Was the US-led intervention a mistake? Why was there not more planning for stabilizing Libya after the intervention, or disarming the militias that quickly brought chaos to cities such as Benghazi? Why did the State Department fail to provide the Benghazi mission with sufficient security?
These are all questions, by the way, that implicate Hillary Clinton. A lot of liberal people will want to dislike this movie because it will be bad for Hillary Clinton, and it will likely hurt her presidential campaign by misleading people into believing things about Benghazi that are untrue or, at best, incomplete. But there are real reasons that what happened in Benghazi should cause Clinton political problems. It just does not appear that those reasons are given much space, if any, in this movie.
Will this movie do for Benghazi cover-ups what Zero Dark Thirty did for torture?
Films can have an enormous impact on how the public sees a contentious issue. They are more compelling and relatable — not to mention much more widely viewed — than any documentary or congressional hearing. They tend to play up the idea of heroes and villains, right choices and wrong, and narratives with clear beginnings, middles, and, ends, all of which makes them more enjoyable to watch but also misleading guides to the messiness of the real world.
You do not have to look far to see how popular movies can mislead people on important issues. The public debate over torture and whether it "works" had been all but settled by late 2012, when director Kathryn Bigelow released Zero Dark Thirty, which portrayed American torture programs as essential in finding and killing Osama bin Laden. This portrayal was wildly incorrect; even the CIA's chief denounced it. But a year later, American public opinion had come to see torture as effective and worthwhile.
I fear that Bay's Benghazi thriller will prove far more misleading than Bigelow's bin Laden drama. Zero Dark Thirty took disturbing liberties on the question of torture's efficacy, but at least tried to portray the hunt for bin Laden in appropriate shades of moral and political gray. Based on this trailer, it seems less like Bay's film will take liberties with the truth than it will use the truth as a thin cover for a vapid action flick.