On Thursday, audiences will finally get a first look at director Michael Bay's potential political bombshell of an action film, “13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” Although mainstream critics have yet to weigh in on the film’s quality, conservative pundits are crowing that it’s a “masterpiece” that could be Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s undoing.
The film, which appears to be strategically opening on the same weekend the military-themed drama “American Sniper” expanded nationwide one year ago, is based on a 2013 nonfiction book by Michael Zuckoff, which details the efforts of U.S. security forces to protect the inhabitants of the American embassy in Libya when it was under siege by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2012. Ultimately, four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, died that day, and several prominent Republicans have laid the blame for the incident at the feet of then-Secretary of State Clinton. In over 10 hours of hearings before Congress this October, Republicans failed to make a convincing case that Clinton was derelict in her duty that day, but now some are suggesting “13 Hours” might be more persuasive.
“The film never mentions Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But in subtle ways, it makes clear their weakness and dishonesty,” wrote Stephen F. Hayes, in a glowing review for the conservative Weekly Standard. “For months, there has been speculation the film could damage the presidential prospects of Hillary Clinton. That's possible. It's certainly an effective critique of the Obama administration's misadventures in Libya and culpability in the Benghazi disaster.” Meanwhile, Fox News host Megyn Kelly recently devoted 20 minutes of her prime-time show to the film, which she claims “reintroduces Benghazi as a potential campaign issue that cannot be helpful to Mrs. Clinton." Conservative pollster Franz Luntz has said the public has a "responsibility" to see the movie. "This is not something that you want to politicize, although obviously something happened there that wasn't right and [Clinton] is responsible," he said on Fox News.
And early trailers for the film have prominently featured what appears to be a State Department official telling troops to "stand down" in their rescue efforts, a premise that has been debunked repeatedly, most recently by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Jan. 8, “I'm sure there are going to be movies and books and there will be all kinds of theories that will be presented, but from my experience, and from the role that I played as secretary of defense, there was never any order to stand down. On the contrary, the whole effort was to do everything possible to try to save lives.”
According to Kris ‘Tanto’ Paraonto, one of the real life Army Rangers portrayed in the film, he and his fellow soldiers wanted the film be “apolitical.”
“From the time we got the call to the time the last [CIA Global Response Staff member] got out of Benghazi 13 hours later, it was a story of heroism. That was getting lost in the politics of it all,” he told The New York Post.
“Politicians hijacked it. The right use it, the left use it, and the true story got lost,” he added. “The truth isn’t political. Now, the truth may affect political aspirations, but hey, sorry, that’s how it goes. We want people to know the true story, and if they want to use it as a determination of candidates, we can’t stop that. But we’re not going to get up there and say, ‘You should pick this person.’”
Still, the perception is out there that the film is a vehicle for right-wing perspectives on Benghazi. “I think, unfortunately, it might be one of the those films where people have their minds made up without having even seen it,” Daniel Loria, managing editor of Pro.BoxOffice.com told MSNBC on Wednesday. “There’s a perception out there among conservatives that this movie might speak to them,“ he added, suggesting the audiences on the left end of the political spectrum appear to have the opposite impression of the film. Loria’s site has been tracking the film’s social media activity – which has been largely negative – and predicts that it will perform on the lower end of expectations compared to jingoistic hits like “American Sniper” and 2013’s “Lone Survivor,” which also enjoyed a successful January release.
Loria believes its lack of A-List stars and awards pedigree distances "13 Hours" ability to draw the kinds of crowds "American Sniper" did. That film wound up becoming the highest grossing film released in 2014, beating out more traditional fare like "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" and "Guardians of the Galaxy." Loria called "13 Hours" a "difficult sell" especially against Oscar-nominated competition and the Kevin Hart-Ice Cube comedy "Ride Along 2," which opens the same weekend. "Do you want to see this movie that might be politically charged or do you want to this comedy sequel that you recognize?" Loria said audiences may ask themselves. Still, he thinks if the film has good word of mouth and "becomes something we're talking about around the water cooler," it could potentially break out and become a bonafide hit.
That said, timely films about recent tragedies or ongoing political conflict don't always have the best commercial track record -- see "United 93" or "W," for example-- and if you didn't, well, few people did when they initially came out. Eric Kohn, deputy editor and chief film critic for Indiewire, told MSNBC Tuesday that although he has yet to see the film he suspects "Benghazi is such a narrow kind of story and invites such morbid possibilities, I would be surprised if it invited the same kind of turnout that you’d see at Trump rally."
It doesn't help that Bay, the film's director, is a brand name associated with cartoonish action films like his "Transformers" movies, not edgy, political fare, and Kohn argues that the lack of critics' screenings for the movie "tells you what kind of expectations the studio has for the reception of this movie." It did get a literally enormous debut at AT&T Stadium in Dallas on Tuesday, where 30,000 free tickets were distributed to an audience, which included a huge swath of veterans.
“I feel like it’s a movie that’s going to show that Hillary Clinton is a liar and a cheat because she kept saying it was a video, it wasn’t a protest, that caused this action in Benghazi,” Ed Edwards, a Georgia man seen sporting a Trump hat, told The Dallas Morning News at the event. “I hope it exposes all the truth and destroys the lies that we’re getting out of the White House.”
Kohn argues that while the movie may be an "afterthought" to many film-goers because of its focus on Benghazi, he concedes that "There are people who are drawn to relatively simplistic portrayals of what they want to see their countries look like and these movies offer a certain confirmation of that."