Now that mainstream critics are finally getting a look at the controversial new film "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi," a consensus has formed -- it's a Michael Bay movie. In other words the film, which purports to tell the true story of the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, is big on bombast, but short on substance.
The New York Times has called it "a pummeling slog." The Los Angeles Times says it's "too long for its own good." The Wall Street Journal calls it "grotesquely overblown." And The Guardian's reviewer states that "Abhorrent politics aside, it’s also a terrible movie. The dialogue is atrocious, the performances rote. One could make the case that its incoherence is a grand meta-narrative statement about the fluidity of combat, but I don’t think that’s the case."
Still, that hasn't deterred conservatives from rallying around the movie, which portrays State Department officials, who were under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's leadership at the time, telling American servicemen to "stand down" in their efforts to mount a rescue mission for U.S. embassy workers, a moment government officials have repeatedly insisted did not take place. Conservative publications like The Weekly Standard and The New York Post have sung the movie's praises, while GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has shelled out cash to pay for a free screening of the film for Iowa voters ahead of the caucuses there on Feb. 1.
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"Mr. Trump would like all Americans to know the truth about what happened at Benghazi,” Trump's Iowa co-chair Tana Goertz told reporters on Thursday. “The theater is paid for. The tickets are paid for. You just have to RSVP." Not to be outdone, Sen. Ted Cruz gave the movie a shoutout during his closing remarks at Thursday's prime-time Republican debate. "Tomorrow morning, a new movie will debut about the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives in Benghazi and the politicians that abandoned them," he said.
And America Rising PAC, an influential GOP opposition research film is hosting a free screening of the film in the nation's capitol on Friday, accompanied by a panel discussion featuring Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and Elliott Abrams, the former deputy national security advisor for President George W. Bush. Meanwhile, Clinton's campaign has declined to comment on it.
Clearly, the perception among many conservatives has been that if the film becomes a hit it could serve to convict the Democratic presidential front-runner in the court of public opinion in a way that more than 10 hours of her testimony before the GOP-led House Benghazi Committee failed to, but if the movie is viewed as little more than a vehicle for right-wing views, that may be what Box Office Mojo calls a "tough bet to make."
"First instinct would be to look at recent military-driven features opening in January for a comparison, but 'American Sniper,' 'Zero Dark Thirty' and 'Lone Survivor' all had more juice behind them, both in terms of the awards race and star power," wrote the site's box office analyst Brad Brevet, who predicts that the film could be one of the lowest openers of Bay's career.
Of course, conservatives may be hoping that "13 Hours" performs much like polarizing actor-director Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" did in 2004. That film, buoyed to some degree by controversy over its subject matter and support from religious evangelicals, grossed an enormous $83 million when it opened wide that February, despite very mediocre reviews and allegations of anti-Semitism against the film and it star. "The Passion of the Christ" eventually made $370 million domestically, improbably becoming the third highest grossing film of that year. Since that film's release a spate of overtly religious films, targeted at primarily conservative audiences, have been profitable, but no film has approached the level of crossover success the Gibson film did.
And while that film did not win over many critics, Gibson's talent as a filmmaker has rarely been questioned. He had already won the Academy Award for "Braveheart" when "Passion the Christ" debuted, and two years later his thriller "Apocalypto" was hailed by many within in the industry as a masterpiece. Bay, on the other hand, has become a favorite for critical beatdown, and when he has tried to stretch into historical territory in the past with his 2001 film "Pearl Harbor" he has been ridiculed for its cultural insensitivity and lack of nuance:
With "13 Hours," critics are lamenting the fact that Bay has made, in their opinion, little more than a live action video game instead of a probing portrait of what may be one of the most contentious issues of the 2016 presidential campaign, should Clinton win her party's nomination.
"Bay is a hyperactive stylist whose idea of a personal project involves imitating other, more thoughtful films about machismo," wrote Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for The A.V. Club. "Posturing so hard that he probably threw out his back during production, Bay waves scorched American flags and takes swipes at the elitism of Harvard and Yale. (Bay himself went to Wesleyan, so maybe it’s personal.) On an ideological level, the movie is an ode to doing it for the money; in Bay’s brand of film-making, there’s nothing more American."
And cinematic political polemics, even financially successful ones, have a poor track record of swinging elections. Just ask Michael Moore.