‘13 Hours’ returns Benghazi to political spotlight (MOVIE REVIEW)

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/01/20/13-hours-returns-benghazi-to-political-spotlight/

BOSTON –“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” the new action film from director Michael Bay, depicts the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate  in Benghazi, Libya on the night of Set. 11, 2001, which left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.

Our political leaders and the politics surrounding the aftermath of the attack are largely absent from the thriller, which attempts to portray what happened from the point of view of five ex-commandos who survived the fight. But although the film purposely leaves the political ramifications aside, that hasn’t prevented renewed controversy over a key contention made in the 2014 book that the movie is based on:  that the Central Intelligence Agency officer in charge at the scene ordered security contractors who sought to help those in the compound to “stand down” at a crucial moment.

The CIA man, a now-retired clandestine service officer described only as “Bob” in the Washington Post, told the paper he never gave such an order. The film shows him doing so.

Author Mitchell Zuckoff, a Boston University journalism teacher and former Boston Globe reporter, has insisted his portrayal is accurate. He worked with the five CIA contractors who battled to save the compound that night to reconstruct the events as they unfolded.

Released as campaigning for the 2016 presidential election heats up, and portraying a major disaster that occurred on the watch of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the final stages of President Barack Obama’s reelection drive, the film has stoked controversy over the events, which have led to multiple hearings on Capitol Hill.

A report in November 2014 from a Republican-led House panel states unequivocally that no stand down order was given: “Appropriate U.S. personnel made reasonable tactical decisions that night, and the committee found no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support,” the report’s executive summary says.

What has become a political blame game stretching over years started with a nighttime assault on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, a coastal city in eastern Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. Gunmen overran the site, setting a fire that would kill Stevens and a Foreign Service Officer, Sean Smith.

The fighting eventually spreads to a CIA annex about a mile away, where the security contractors followed by “13 Hours” had set off earlier on a failed rescue mission for Stevens. As the night ended, two CIA contractors, including former Navy SEAL Glen Doherty, a Winchester native, died in a mortar attack that wounded two others.

While the events triggered a political firestorm between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, Bay’s film focuses on poor intelligence, lack of support and communication breakdowns between the CIA, the State Department and the Defense Department. Clinton is never mentioned and Obama is only referred to once, and then only by a government acronym, POTUS.

Early on, when the CIA annex is first shown, one character laments the lack of concealment of its presence, pointing out that a heavily fortified complex staffed by westerners would surely draw the attention of local residents.

“There is no threat,” the CIA station chief later says. “We won the revolution.”

But in a short internal monologue, Stevens is portrayed as concerned about the security of the diplomatic compound. The Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives said in its November 2014 report that the U.S. intelligence community was aware of the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi before the attack.

As the assault grows more intense in the movie, Bay turns his lens to a lack of support from American military assets in the region. Between bursts of automatic fire, the besieged Americans again and again call for reinforcements and air support. Though a security team from the Libyan capital of Tripoli eventually arrives, requests for air assets go unmet.

As if to hammer that point home one final time, Bay portrays the last remaining CIA contractors preparing to board a Libyan aircraft.

“Still no Americans,” one of the men says.

While “13 Hours” avoids Benghazi’s political ramifications, politicians and journalists haven’t.

The Wall Street Journal reported that dozens of House Republicans on a policy retreat in Baltimore opted to catch the film over watching the GOP presidential debate last Thursday.

“There were folks who were interested in seeing the portrayal of Benghazi and it held I guess more attraction than last night,” U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Georgia) told reporters at the time.

The movie, which officially opened the next day, was also mentioned during both the undercard and the main GOP debate that night, as Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, cited the film’s debut to take a jab at the Obama administration.

On Sunday, Chuck Todd, host of the NBC news show “Meet the Press,” used the movie’s depiction of events to press Clinton on whether everything possible was done to save Stevens during the attack.

“I testified for more than 11 hours, as you know. I answered every question that I was asked,” Clinton replied, referring to the House committee’s ongoing probe of the incident. “My real focus, Chuck, is what do we do to make sure that when we send Americans into harm’s way, military or civilian, our diplomats or our soldiers, we take every precaution, to the best of our ability, to what is an unpredictable and dangerous world to make sure that they can discharge their duties and be safe while doing it.”

Though Clinton didn’t directly speak about the film’s portrayal of events, she noted that others have questioned the movie’s factual accuracy. Clinton’s first public statements about the attack blamed it on a spontaneous reaction to a video about Islam posted on the Internet.

Whether “13 Hours” sways any voters may never be known, but so far ticket sales have failed to impress Hollywood watchers. The 144-minute film, which cost an estimated $50 million, took in an estimated $19.7 million in its first four days at the box office, trailing “Ride Along 2,” “The Revenant” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”