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Michael Bay's 13 Hours promotes some of the worst Benghazi conspiracy theories

Pictured: the military contractors who epitomize American masculinity.
Pictured: the military contractors who epitomize American masculinity.
(Paramount Pictures)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Michael Bay's new film depicting the 2012 attacks that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, sets out on a daring mission of its own. Bay wants to spend 140 minutes splashing around in what has since become one of the most politicized and heavily litigated incidents of the Obama administration, all while somehow avoiding, or more often simply ignoring, the points of still-roiling controversy that litter the real-life events.

Rather, Bay wants to use the real-life story's draw to pull in audiences while also recasting the 2012 Benghazi attacks in the most conventional action-movie mold possible.

If anything, the story of Benghazi, as Bay tells it, has little or nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with the adolescent conceptions of masculinity that generally define his films. The heroes are the big, bearded, muscly private military contractors who fight off the bad guys and save the day. The real villains aren't the terrorists or even the Obama administration; they're the egghead "intellectuals" who get in the way of the beefy dudes with big guns.

But try as it might, 13 Hours can't escape politics. The movie's attempt to make a real-life event into an action movie, and raise the stakes by telling an audience what they're seeing is a "true story," requires it to distort the events of September 11, 2012 — in some cases twisting it beyond recognition. And in doing so, the movie lends credence to some of the most pernicious conspiracy theories about Benghazi out there.

13 Hours is a manly man action movie masquerading as a history

(Paramount Pictures)

The movie is based on a book of the same name, by Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff. The book's narrative is based on interviews with five military contractors tasked with defending a CIA annex in Benghazi; Bay's movie follows the same script, telling the attack from the point of view of the contractors.

The film begins with one of the contractors, Jack Silva (an improbably buff John Krasinski), arriving in Benghazi for the first time. From the outset, the Libyan city is portrayed as deeply insecure and dangerous, which indeed it was: Silva and his colleague, Tyrone Woods, are briefly stopped at gunpoint on their way back from the airport by members of the real-life Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia.

What Ansar al-Sharia is, or what the group's goals are, isn't really explained. Rather, they are presented as part of a larger threat of armed, shady-looking men, any of whom could pose a threat.

The film's desire to keep this dynamic simple is understandable — action movie audiences aren't looking for a tutorial on North African jihadism. But it's the other major dynamic of the film where it gets into trouble: the conflict between the contractor heroes and the sniveling CIA bureaucrats.

The primary "villain" in this latter dynamic is the CIA's base chief, known only as Bob and portrayed by a chubby, balding David Costabile. Bob chastises the contractors for getting in trouble with the Ansar al-Shariah roadblock, telling them that their fears about security are a "distraction" from the work that the CIA's "Harvard and Yale"–educated officers are doing.

"There's no threat," Bob says to Woods, condescension dripping from his voice. "The best thing for you to do is to stay out of the way."

This is the dynamic throughout the film. The contractors identify a threat, Bob and the other namby-pamby CIA officers try to stop them from doing anything about it, and everyone suffers until the contractors fix the problem by shooting it.

This climaxes when the movie finally gets to the Benghazi attack itself. In real life and in the movie, the militants didn't initially attack the CIA annex but rather the US diplomatic mission housing Ambassador Stevens about a mile away. When the initial reports of the attack come in at around 9:40 pm local time (the movie helpfully has a little clock on the bottom), the contractors demand permission to go save Stevens.

But the cowardly Bob — who literally says he's coasting until retirement, like the stock movie villain he is — won't let them go. "STAND DOWN!" he yells, his tubby cheeks red with rage.

The contractors eventually decide, at roughly 10 pm, to just ignore Bob, and head over to the mission to save the day. "You're not giving orders now," Woods growls at Bob, thrilling the audience. "You're taking them."

They're too late to save Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith, another staffer — which they blame, repeatedly, on the Bob-imposed delay. But their heroic insubordination allows everyone else to escape to the annex, which then itself falls under siege.

If that sounds like every action movie you've ever seen, that's because it is. The rest of 13 Hours is a somewhat-hard-to-follow series of car chases, firefights, and explosions, punctuated by scenes of the CIA officers belatedly realizing the contractors were right all along. The officers spend the rest of the film trying to help them by securing air support from the US government — which NEVER COMES (more on that important point later). Eventually, some friendly Libyans show up and help end the siege on the annex, and the survivors go home to America.

Tl;dr: Strong men with guns are good, and weak men with Harvard degrees are bad. That is Michael Bay's story of Benghazi and why four Americans died.

The core story 13 Hours tells about Benghazi is flatly false

(Paramount Pictures)

I understand why Michael Bay wanted to make a movie like this. It fits his self-described mission as a filmmaker: "I make movies for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime." And I also get that holding up a popcorn action flick to rigorous standards of historical accuracy both misunderstands the point of action movies and, inevitably, can lead only to madness.

But 13 Hours isn't another one of Bay's Transformers: He's working with real life here. And the true story of Benghazi is not a story of heroic men stymied by incompetent bureaucrats and abandoned by their government.

The point is not that this narrative is overly simplistic and wrong — of course it is — but rather that in trying to wedge the real-life story into this box, Bay ends up distorting what happened in ways that could end up misleading millions of American viewers who are still trying figure out what happened in real-life Benghazi and how to feel about it. It also ends up dovetailing, deliberately or not, with some of the most common and most persistent conspiracy theories about the incident.

First, the movie's most dramatic moment — Bob's obstruction of the contractors and the stand-down order — probably didn't happen. The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, the most credible official investigation into Benghazi, investigated precisely this issue. It found that, "Although some members of the security team expressed frustration that they were unable to respond more quickly to the Mission compound," there was "no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the Chief of Base or any other party."

The Republican-authored House Armed Services Committee report concurred, saying that "this issue appears to be settled" by the Senate investigation.

The Senate finding is based, among other things, on an account from the deputy chief of base (whom I don't recall seeing on in the movie). In an official CIA memorandum, the deputy said that the real-life chief of base "authorized the move" to send the contractors to the mission. The contractors didn't contravene his order to stand down; they went out with his blessing.

At least one contractor, Kris Paronto, continues to insist that the real-life Bob issued a stand-down order. But it says a lot that Paronto's account has been rejected by every official report that looked at the issue as well as every top-level US official in office at the time.

13 Hours' second major error is even worse: It claims that US air support could have helped end the attack, but that the US military prevented planes that were in range from taking off.

The contractors in 13 Hours are constantly talking about how they want air support, that without it, "we're on our own." The reason they don't get it, the movie says explicitly, is military incompetence.

During the attack, a CIA officer calls the US military and is told that there's a plane in Italy, a "puddle jump" away from Benghazi. When she asks for air support, the military asks for her "authorization." The authorization, she yells, "is that we're UNDER ATTACK." The planes never come, and two more people (contractors Tyrone Woods and Glenn Doherty) die in a subsequent mortar attack.

The clear implication is that air support could have saved two lives but was held up by bureaucratic incompetence. "I called for air support," the officer says, stunned. "They never came."

This is, without a doubt, 100 percent made up. The House Armed Services report found that "the Department of Defense had no armed drones or manned aircraft prepared for combat readily available and nearby on September 11 [when the attack occurred]."

According to the report, the planes in Italy "were configured for training flights." None of them, the report found, were ready to fly a combat mission. Getting them ready couldn't have been accomplished until after the attack was over.

The nearest armed craft was in Djibouti, which (as one general put it in Senate testimony) is about as far from Benghazi as DC is from LA. It simply couldn't have gotten there in time to do anything.

In the movie, the contractors say that even an unarmed overflight could have saved them by putting "the fear of God" in the attackers. After surveying expert judgment, the House report came to the opposite conclusion.

"Even if such planes could have been dispatched in a timely manner, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for pilots (even with night vision capability) to identify and overfly attackers in very low light," the report concluded. "The Benghazi attackers demonstrated that they were the sort of experienced fighters that ... might be less fearful of an unarmed overflight."

13 Hours' biggest problem: It doesn't want to be a political movie, but it is anyway

(Paramount Pictures)

13 Hours doesn't really pretend to have anything to say about the nature of war or geopolitics. It just wants to entertain us with explosions and thrill us with the tale of the contractors' heroism.

But there's a problem: It's nearly impossible to make a nonpolitical movie about the Benghazi attacks. Benghazi is, as the movie says, a true story — and the subject of a vicious, ongoing partisan fight in which virtually every major issue of fact has been contested. No matter how you tell the story, it'll end up fitting (and thus supporting) someone's narrative.

In this case, the film ends up furthering, intentionally or not, a narrative that isn't just political but also false.

That's why the movie's big errors aren't just mere inaccuracies. The movie's very clear message is that the deaths in Benghazi were preventable, and would have been prevented if it weren't for bureaucratic incompetence. The US government, in the movie's telling, has blood on its hands.

This is precisely the line of reasoning that leads various conspiracy theorists to blame President Obama or Hillary Clinton for the deaths in Benghazi. The movie makes a point of telling us that President Obama has been briefed on the attacks. But if everyone up to Obama knew about the attack, why wouldn't the Benghazi station have "authorization" to request air support? Who stopped the military from sending the planes?

This logic has led people to suppose there was a second, even more dangerous "stand down" order — issued to US military assets by the Obama administration. 13 Hours makes this narrative seem extremely plausible, if not even likely — even though it's been debunked by every credible official report that examined the issue.

The result is a movie that lends legitimacy to false and already widespread conspiracy theories. It's a confused message on a subject that's already confusing Americans enough.

This is a shame, because there are some things it does really well

(Paramount Pictures)

For all this, there's still a gem of good movie here, one that a subtler filmmaker than Bay might have better surfaced.

13 Hours does a great, maybe exceptional, job at portraying just how hard it is to secure American officials in dangerous environment. Before the attack begins, the camera flits around rapidly on the Benghazi streets, pointing out all the armed militia members lounging on street corners, which was indeed a real and dangerous dynamic.

From the point of view of the contractors, it's impossible to create a safe environment for the ambassador or CIA officers they're tasked with protecting. Their experience comes across as a state of constant, paranoid alertness; even little things, like a dropped teacup at an ambassadorial function, freak them out. This serves to both build tension before the attack and demonstrate how difficult it truly was to have security for American officials in Libya's postwar chaos.

The movie also does an admirable job humanizing the Libyans, a major improvement over last year's "true history" war flick American Sniper.

Amahl, a Libyan translator, is one of the film's heroes, going into combat despite his lack of military training. The contractors encounter a number of friendly Libyans, including during the siege at the CIA Annex. They go to great lengths to avoid risk to Libya civilians, which is an especial improvement on American Sniper's not-so-subtle implication that Iraqi civilians had it coming.

There's a particularly striking moment at the end of the movie, when we see grieving Libyan wives and mothers of the militants who died attacking the Americans. They run out to their sons' bloody corpses, bawling. The camera then pans to the man who appears to be the attack's ringleader. There's some real ambivalence on his face, as if he wasn't sure the attack was worth seeing this carnage.

In those moments, 13 Hours feels like a much better movie: a story about the inherent dangers and violence of an anarchic failed state. A movie, in other words, about the real reasons Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in 2012.

But that's not the story Michael Bay wanted to tell. He wanted a flick with car chases, muscly men, big explosions, and improbably leggy flight attendants. And that's fine: He's been wildly successful using that formula.

But Benghazi is, as 13 Hours tells us, a true story. And when you claim to be telling a true story, it's important to actually tell the truth.

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