Toward the end of last night’s 523rd Republican presidential debate , Senator Ted Cruz, whom you might remember as the demonic spirit from the movie It Follows , suddenly turned into the Moviefone guy and reminded America that a very, very important motion picture is set for release on Friday. “Tomorrow morning a new movie will debut about the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives in Benghazi,” he said. “And the politicians that abandoned them.”
He was referring to 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi , which you might know better as “The Benghazi Movie”. I honestly haven’t heard many people actually refer to the film by its official title. Ask someone on the street if they’ve seen 13 Hours and they might respond with: “Oh, you mean the Spike Lee movie?” No, that’s the 25th Hour . “Is that the movie about the Cuban missile crisis?” Negative, that’s Thirteen Days . So, I just call it The Benghazi Movie. Sorta like The Lego Movie , but replacing Batman, Lord Business and Wyldstyle with a series of sitcom actors wearing identical beards and some sheep.
Senator Cruz is still pretty hung up on the events of 11 September 2012, an assault on American diplomatic and espionage bases in Libya . To be fair, so was everyone else on the stage last night. Chris Christie promised that Hillary Clinton, secretary of state during the Benghazi attack, would “not get within 10 miles of the White House” because of her perceived crimes were he to become president. That seems kind of harsh. After all, she used to live there. What if she left her sunglasses in the Lincoln bedroom?
But that pointed rhetoric is indicative of the conservative view of Clinton and the tragedy in Benghazi. They want someone punished, preferably Hillary, since she’s actively running for the highest office in the land. Four Americans died, plus those who lost their lives on the other side of the conflict. The people who survived the siege of the American outposts had their very existence changed irrevocably. No one should have to experience such a horror show.
Except you can right now, for a price. It only cost me $14, plus the cost of two Uber rides, to experience said horror show – well, at least Michael Bay’s multimillion-dollar fictionalized, shaky-cam approximation of a horror show. After Ted Cruz’s call to arms, I knew that it was my duty as an American to swallow a bucket of popcorn like a baby bird while while watching the truth about Benghazi’s heroes on the largest screen available. I needed to join my fellow patriots and do my duty. Plus, I had no other plans and no one was answering my phone calls.
I was seeing the film at the Americana at Brand, an outdoor mall-slash-consumerist pleasure palace that resembles a quaint, small-town American main street. There’s a trolley that ferries shoppers from one end of the mall to the other, which takes much longer than just walking. I suppose it’s great for tourists who want to take pictures. “Look, honey,” they might say. “There’s the Apple store! And a Cheesecake Factory! And a Sephora! Wow, this really is the greatest country in the world.” In that moment, as I take in the capitalist splendor, I feel grateful that I was seeing 13 Hours at the Americana. It reminds me what our boys in Libya were fighting for.
I needed to join my fellow patriots and do my duty. Plus, I had no other plans and no one was answering my phone calls
The mall has a theater – a generic monstrosity called the Pacific Theaters 18 – in the middle of the complex. I walk in a half-hour before the 9.05pm screening was set to begin. The clerk at the front of the house asks me to pick my seat – LA is civilized, so most multiplexes have assigned seating now. I have a litany of options, as the theater is maybe 30% full, if I’m being generous. I deliberately choose a seat close to the screen, because if I’m going to get the truth about Benghazi, I want the whole truth.
As I enter the auditorium, I scan the crowd for the purposes of assessing the demographics. There’s only one woman I can see, and she’s on a date. I wonder what kind of sadistic creature considered 13 Hours an acceptable date movie. It’s not quite Love, Actually, people. It’s more like Death, Eventually – a grisly, jingoistic tale of noble beards fighting for survival. I suppose that’s kind of romantic. John Krasinski’s character has a wife and children (with another one on the way) that motivate him to survive certain peril at the hands of cruel, nihilistic terrorists. Maybe Ted Cruz will take his wife to see this on Valentine’s Day and declare that he would also gladly eviscerate another human being to see her face again. Hold me, I’m swooning.
All thoughts of romance leave me once the lights dim and the ominous music kicks in. This film is very dumb, very bleak and very graphic. I laugh when the squirrelly guy from Breaking Bad screams: “I don’t want to hear it, Tyrone,” as though he’s the surly chief from a bad 80s cop movie. Toward the middle of the picture, Toby Stephens – the English actor best known as the villain from James Bond movie Die Another Day – turns to camera with a straight face and requests “a bag full of money and a flight to Benghazi”, which is the kind of thing that only sounds clever and significant in hindsight. I guarantee you, no one knew that the word “Benghazi” would matter one bit to Americans back home almost four years later. Still, Stephens delivers the line as though he’s talking to an audience in 2016 rather than the character he’s sharing the scene with in the imaginary version of 2012.
After a bit of banter and some exposition, the violence begins. One of the lead beards gets his arm shot in half and spends a good portion of the third act with his forearm and hand dangling from the rest of his body like a sausage hanging in a deli window. Bay is sure to frame the broken arm for maximum viewing disruption. It’s so hideous – what with the dripping blood and exposed bones and what not – that you can’t help but pay rapt attention, albeit through the spaces between your fingers as you shield your face from the simulated mutilation. I can’t help but wonder if the couple who came to see this film are regretting their decision as much as I am.
Dawn breaks and the cavalry arrives to save our heroes, and the film wraps up with our remaining beards escaping the hellish war zone and returning to their families. Nicky Sobotka from The Wire asks John Krasinski what they get for their trouble. Krasinski says: “We get to go home.” In that moment, I felt like he was speaking for me. Granted, I just watched the movie. I didn’t even act in it. I certainly didn’t live it. All the same, I took great comfort in knowing I was about to go home too. Just like John Krasinski, I was about to see my long-suffering, lonely wife. I just hoped she wasn’t also pregnant.
The brave souls who ventured to the outdoor mall in order to watch a fake version of a real war exit the theater peacefully. Hardly anyone speaks to each other, presumably because of the sheer gravity of the art they’ve witnessed, or maybe just because they’re really, really exhausted at midnight on a Thursday. The lone couple makes some small talk, none of it about the movie, from what I can tell. Two men walk out in front of me. They’re also whispering, but I can definitely make out one of them saying the word “crap”. I don’t know if that’s in reference to 13 Hours, the current state of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, or just life in general. Some mysteries should never be solved.
My Uber driver on the ride home is named Lavrent. He speaks with an accent, but I don’t dare speculate on its origin for fear of mislabeling him. “Pretty cold out,” Lavrent says in an attempt to make small talk. “Yup, though it could be worse. It could be snowing,” I respond. He goes on to tell me how he once witnessed 20 minutes of snow in Burbank, a town not far from Glendale. His obligatory anecdote complete, we sit in silence for a bit until I venture to ask him how his night is going so far. “I just started,” he tells me. My question is nothing more than a clever way to ask him what he thinks about 13 Hours. “That’s cool. I just saw the Benghazi movie,” I say. From there he shuts down, like I just pressed a button on Data from Star Trek’s neck and deactivated him. “Yeah, it was really bad. I don’t know why I bothered seeing it,” I continue, hoping he’ll have an opinion or really any response at all. Nothing. I realize then that I either offended him or made him think I was about to commit a hate crime. We get to my apartment, I thank him, he mumbles, and I leave. I rate him five stars to apologize for our awkward moment – a minor penance for my social faux pas.
It’s clear to me that collectively, and individually, we don’t want to talk about Benghazi. Granted, neither did Hillary Clinton, but she did, for hours, more than once, with cameras trained on her the entire time. Hillary probably doesn’t want to talk about it because it’s a roadblock in front of her path to the presidency. The average citizen might not want to talk about it because it’s a divisive, politically charged topic with a tinge of xenophobia on the side. Conservatives badly want to talk about it though, because it’s politically advantageous for them in a presidential election year. In all cases, our response to Benghazi is self-interested, predicated on our political leanings and our tolerance for tragedy.
Right or wrong, I don’t think most Americans understand or care about Benghazi. The rest have moved on. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from November of last year found that only 38% of Americans found Hillary Clinton’s response to the Benghazi attack unsatisfactory . That it is still a throbbing, raw nerve in the gladitorial pit of our democracy is surprising. That it’s now a form of escapist entertainment is depressing.
I’m sure the intention of Michael Bay and the other filmmakers behind 13 Hours was to honor the fallen of Benghazi, but at least with the audience I saw the film with, the end result is a mind-numbing sensory assault that’s barely coherent. It’s a movie that’s no more political than a Transformers sequel, probably because Michael Bay is less interested in politics than he is in social hierarchies and class warfare. Like in any Michael Bay movie, bureaucrats, intellectuals and upper-class snobs are benign, arrogant foils for the true heroes – the muscle-bound oaf or the horny teen. If that’s a political statement, then I guess Caddyshack belongs in the same Netflix category as Bowling for Columbine.
Regardless, Ted Cruz and his fellow candidates will surely try to use this motion picture for their own personal gain for as long as possible. That’s what we do with tragedy in this country, after all. We build a memorial, complete with a gift shop stocked with all the cheaply made junk imaginable. We crank out corny movies based on the true story in the hope that enough people will drag their significant other to the theater to experience the sadness first-hand, with the explicit goal of making a sorry buck off the misery. And we try to score political points whenever possible. That’s the American Way.