“Why didn’t we bomb the shit out of them?” a man asked me. “Why aren’t we bombing the shit out of ‘em? Give me a B-52 and I’ll go over there right now.” It was a chilly night in Texas, but his mind was more than 6,000 miles away, in Libya. He and I and some 30,000 other people had come to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas—home of the Dallas Cowboys—for the outsized world premiere of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
The 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi means many things to many people. It is, at its most basic level, an actual human tragedy, one of an uncountable number this country has been party to in the last fifteen years. Lives were lost, and they might have been saved, and it’s hard to say why, or what good it did. It is also a meme, a punchline, and a political cudgel. For the people who care most about it, Benghazi is less shorthand for a historical episode than a concept, an abstract descriptor of a feeling shared by an uncountable number of people in this country that the nation’s leaders are traitors, by way of incompetence or malice or both.
But on Tuesday, people lined up by the thousands to see Benghazi begin a new life as something else entirely: an entertainment product. Michael Bay, the auteur who brought you Pearl Harbor and Pain & Gain, had brought the premiere to the stadium’s 180-foot-long high definition video board, with an enormous on-field stage and red carpet below. The audience filled most of the north half of the stadium. There was complimentary popcorn, one bag per ticket.
Bay insists—and much of the coverage about the movie accepts—that 13 Hours, which follows a group of military contractors during the attack, is “non-political.” That’s true inasmuch as the movie does not mention Hillary Clinton’s name. In every other way, of course, the claim is horseshit —and not even in the sense that all movies, let alone war movies, are political. As it shows in theaters over the coming months, it will make an indelible mark on the presidential race, and conservatives know it. Donald Trump is renting out a movie theater in Iowa to show it. Last night, when it came time for Ted Cruz deliver his closing statement in the Republican debate, the first words out of his mouth were “Thirteen Hours.”
Tuesday’s carnival laid bare the strange and changing nature of the Benghazi obsession—the odd way it veers from sincere and mournful to maudlin and kitschy, the way it’s been instrumentalized. It was, in some sense, intended to be a memorial. People filtered into the stadium under giant waving flags on the stadium’s external jumbotrons. But once inside, they were greeted with the giant floating head of John Krasinski, better known as Jim from The Office, who plays the movie’s protagonist, a security contractor named Jack Da Silva.
When Jim was interviewed on the stadium’s immense on-field red carpet, as part of the pre-show, he spoke about working with the real-life Da Silva to develop his character. A man in front of me groaned. “Oh, so now we know that character doesn’t die,” he said. “Great spoiler, dude.” Yes: Jim from The Office spoiled Benghazi.
Things took a turn for the worse. Chris Cornell of Soundgarden rose to sing a song. Things again took a turn for the worse: He sang another. This one, he said, was “inspired by the people who fell and who stood their ground” in Benghazi. As Cornell sung his Benghazi song, footage from the movie played—jets, wrecked military equipment, handsome men in a foreign land. A Benghazi music video.
Then we dropped back from kitsch into reality: Three of the security contractors who were in Benghazi ascended the stage to speak. The crowd went wild. Back to kitsch: Members of The Band Perry rose to sing Amazing Grace, as a field of lit candles appeared on the screen above. To reality: Photos of the Americans killed in Benghazi began floating over the field: Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, etc. The men next to me were having a debate about the Miami Dolphins.
Finally, when everyone had been to the bar a few times and loaded up on snacks, the movie began. What’s it like? On a purely visual level—which is the only level a significant number of people at the premiere saw Bayghazi, given that the event’s organizers neglected to set up speakers for those in the nosebleeds—it’s a pretty good action movie.
Bay has an almost pornographic feel for the physics of modern war: The cartoon arcs of RPGs in flight; the swiveling, passionless eye of a Predator Drone; expensive, bullet-riddled cars careening through city streets; planes and helicopters and technicals and men with guns, all in hues bordering on the psychedelic. But the human element is less firmly in his grasp, and the moral landscape of the movie is poisonous.
In the first decade after 9/11, Hollywood didn’t really know how to handle America’s new wars. To the extent films addressed them at all, they tended to focus on how they damaged ordinary people. Movies like Home of the Brave, In the Valley of Elah, and The Hurt Locker were not uplifting—at their worst, they could be moralizing and turgid. And they were not successful. The broader culture honored the rank-and-file men and women who sacrificed to fight America’s wars: Support the troops.
In the last few years, as the wars changed shape and expanded, a strange thing happened. The culture began to focus not on ordinary soldiers, but on extraordinary ones—Navy SEALs, special forces operators, military contractors. The movies changed—Act of Valor, Lone Survivor, American Sniper. They celebrate heroes, they take place in a vacuum of political context, and they’re hugely profitable. Strangely, they cater to people who think Hollywood hates them. Film studios, suddenly, learned to love the wars.
13 Hours fits neatly in this new genre. It’s a story told from the perspective of men of extraordinary martial prowess in a deeply unfamiliar and hostile place, surrounded by faceless and unknowable enemies, desperate to survive. It’s a siege movie, and the major plot points would make just as much sense if they were transposed to a movie about a zombie attack, or an alien invasion.
In fact, the movie begins in space, off-planet. We gradually hone in on Libya. The events that prefaced the 2011 NATO intervention are briefly described. When we finally join our main character, Bay highlights that Jim is descending into enemy territory by showing him sitting across the aisle from a woman in a hijab. That’s it. There’s a woman in a hijab. Jim eyes her, and the camera cuts back to her. The camera lingers. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
Watch the children. Jim has two beautiful kids and a beautiful wife and a beautiful house back home. It’s scrupulously established that Jim is a good dad. It’s how the movie establishes that his life has worth. In a montage shortly before the attack, many of the warriors call their kids and wives. Jim’s wife tells him that she’s pregnant. These men kill when necessary, Bayghazi tells us, but in truth they love life. They live for life.
Libyans have children too, but their presence on screen means something close to the opposite: The children of Libya appear in gangs, shortly before something dangerous happens. Their appearance is foreboding. They collaborate with the attackers, and set off fireworks to fuck with the Americans. You see them, playing soccer or peering through the walls into the CIA annex, and are meant to feel unease.
The only notable Libyan character, a translator who works with the Americans, is there for comic relief. He loves big tits, and he spends much of his screen time reluctant to fight and fumbling with his gun. When he’s press-ganged into joining the consulate rescue mission, the lead warrior says: “That guy’s not coming back.” For the Arlington audience, it was a laugh line.
But if he is treated with a sense of contempt, so are all the Americans who don’t carry guns. The core group of contractors are peerless models of wisdom, bravery, compassion and perspicacity, which might have something to do with the fact that they told the story 13 Hours is based on. They are never wrong. They correctly assess the danger from the beginning, and they rise to every occasion, despite their dead-weight compatriots, who generally come off as dopes, either blind to danger or incompetent to the point of villainy.
The worst is the nebbishy and callous CIA station chief, played by David Costabile, who serves as a stand-in for the neglect and dishonor exhibited, in Benghazi narratives, by the politicians and bureaucrats, repeatedly giving the warriors cowardly and self-serving orders. In an early scene, he calls the contractors “hired help” who “should act like it.” He’s as sympathetic as a banker in a Capra film. As the bodies mount, he’s repeatedly unmanned by the warriors, to applause from the audience, until he’s left a quaking hulk at the end. Jim has to shame him into evacuating.
There’s also a beautiful blonde European intelligence operative who dislikes the rough men at first but then, amid the river of blood in the third act, learns to be grateful for the Americans.
Even the slain ambassador, Chris Stevens, is given pretty short shrift. He comes to Benghazi with a pretty face and high ideals—a “true believer.” He gives the annex a corny pep talk about bringing Democratic values to Libya, while a warrior nods off in the background. He’s a victim and we mourn his passing, sure, but he just doesn’t get it. As proof of his vanity, his consular residence contains a framed picture of himself being interviewed on TV. We see it shortly before he is killed.
There’s a lot that’s bizarre about the framing of the main events in 13 Hours, but the portrayal of Stevens is possibly the strangest part. The ambassador is, in conservative Benghazi narratives, the foremost martyr, a man to be honored and remembered, betrayed by the administration. If what is honorable about the contractors is their willingness to lay down life for country, you might think Stevens deserves similar recognition: not so, in Bay’s estimation.
When the warriors start to falter toward the end of the movie, their injuries and deaths are shown in excruciating, agonizing detail. Limbs are severed, and splintered bones poke out of dying men. Warriors collapse in pools of blood. This is Bay’s crude way of emphasizing the magnitude of their sacrifices. Stevens dies offscreen and reappears in a memorial reel in the closing credits.
Many of my fellow moviegoers in Dallas had just come for the show, and many who will see it in the coming months will ingest it solely as entertainment. A good number of people I talked to after the screening praised the movie for being “not slanted” and “not political.” But others had come to take part in a cultural event which recognized and acknowledged their grievances against the administration—the Dallas Morning News talked to one man who’d flown in from Fayetteville, Georgia for that reason. Quite a few people in the audience had anti-Hillary swag: One wore a shirt that extolled the virtues of waterboarding.
The media coverage of 13 Hours is likely to focus on two things: fact-checking of conservative narratives about Benghazi, and the political impact of the movie on Hillary Clinton. The former is a complete waste of time — don’t bother. Benghazi truthers think the attack exposes a deeper truth about Clinton, and though they may embrace individual facts and timelines when they think it helps their case, they’re not actually that important to the larger narrative.
One of the most common Benghazi theories is that Obama and Clinton were trying to “cover up” what had happened when some members of the administration described the attack, in the initial days, as spillover from protests that had been happening in the region over an anti-Islam video, made in the United States, that had been circulating online.
A lot of people seem to think the administration was in some way excusing the murder of Ambassador Stevens, or excusing itself, by ascribing a different motive to the attackers than the one they had. Some seem to think the murder of an American ambassador, the first in decades, wasn’t big news at the time—that the administration was trying to quietly sweep it under the rug. Some of those people believe this movie will be the thing that educates the public about this huge scandal, even though the film makes no mention of the attack’s aftermath, when the cover-up would have taken place.
Beth Maynard and Ruth York, two older women in formal dress,hoped that Bayghazi would expose Clinton’s fraud to a wider audience. “She said to the families, we’re going to get that guy who made the video. And they did,” said York. “Unjustly, they put him in prison. He did no crime. But he was put in prison for that.”
The man in question, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, had a criminal record that included drug possession and bank fraud, and the cause of his re-imprisonment was eight counts of violating his probation. I told them this. “Oh.” York paused. “Well, she was trying to pin that on him.”
Wait. If the problem is that Clinton’s State Department was criminally negligent in providing security to the Ambassador, why would the motive behind the attack change anything? “It doesn’t,” York said confidently. “It really wouldn’t,” Maynard said. Huh.
Will the movie inflame anger about Benghazi? Many conservatives hope so. The movie has been repeatedly subjected to salivating and lusty write-ups in National Review Online. When two trailers for the movie were released in November, months before anyone had seen the movie, NRO expended 1,200 words describing them and bemoaned that “the American public has to rely on a guy that gave us CGI noise-fests based on Transformer children’s toys to help explain, or at the very least dramatize, what exactly did or did not happen that night.” This week, Paramount, the film’s distributor, paid for an advertorial at NRO to publicize the movie. Buckley would be proud.
Certainly, the people who’d come to the stadium because they didn’t like Clinton felt fired up after seeing it. “She’s a piece of shit,” said one man who declined to give his name and didn’t make eye contact. “But I already knew she’s a piece of shit.”
“I hope it defeats Hillary,” said another, Don Lochran. “They covered the whole thing up.” It was Lochran who then suggested bombing them all.
Others were less sanguine. “Oh yeah. I’d shoot Hillary Clinton in the fuckin’ head. I don’t like the bitch at all,” said Len Toomey, who identified himself as a veteran of Desert Storm and Somalia. He’d seen the movie with some VFW friends. “Choke her. She should be in the pisser and I should be pissin’ on her every night.”
One of the women with him laughed. “She’s just like G.I. Jane,” Toomey said. “She needs to be kissin’ my ass.”
A man who identified himself only as a Vietnam vet piped up. “He doesn’t know who G.I. Jane is,” he said scornfully. “You don’t know who G.I. Jane is. What’s her last name?” He asked me.
Fonda, I answered, millennial-ly.
With the riddle answered, he continued: “You know why we didn’t know about Benghazi? Because Hillary covered it up. How could she cover up something like that?”
Why did 13 Hours premiere in Arlington? On the red carpet, Bay said he had come because the city was “the heartland of America.” Tuesday’s premiere was, indeed, a very American event. The Dallas Cowboys, after all, bill themselves America’s Team, signifying perhaps that they are a deep well of mediocrity in thrall to a rich, old, spiritually corrupt creep, which is to say that the Cowboys are a PAC or two away from earning top-tier presidential contender status.
But Arlington is more than just the home of a bad football team: It’s the spiritual center of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, a great galactic plane of young suburbs home to some of the most reactionary politics in the country. What happens here steers America, but it’s often less visible in the wider culture than what happens elsewhere.
It’s also a place that’s responsible in large part for the rise of the new civic religion built around the worship of the most lethal among us. This shift, which manifested in the culture some time before Hollywood began to capitalize on it, was partly born of the interest in Navy SEALs after the death of Osama bin Laden. But it’s also partly created by the warriors themselves.
Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame had much to do with this. After Kyle left the Navy in 2009 and moved to Midlothian, Texas, 25 miles southeast of Arlington, he skillfully made himself into a media figure. He gave riveting talks at local churches, and built a mystique around himself, emphasizing his decency and proficiency with danger. The release of his memoir propelled him to national fame. When he was murdered by another vet with severe psychological problems, he became a martyr. AT&T Stadium was the site of his memorial service, with his casket sitting on the 50 yard line.
Kyle was a complex man, but in Texas he was rendered a Christ-figure, beloved and beyond reproach. Before his death, Kyle told several troubling stories about killing people stateside, either under orders or in self-defence, with the tacit approval of the government and the police. They were probably untrue. But then they surfaced, even writerly Dallas Magazine jumped to defend him. The story was true, because Chris Kyle said it was true. “Consider this story confirmed from the man himself,” the item concluded. “In every sense of the word, Chris Kyle was a true American badass.”
In Texas—and particularly in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex—signs of this cultural shift are everywhere. When former Governor Rick Perry first launched a bid for president in 2011, the unofficial start of his campaign took place in the stadium of the Houston Texans, where he convened and presided over an old-fashioned religious revival called “The Response.”
But by the time he launched his second bid in 2015, he had exchanged the old gods for the new. In Addison, a little town 30 miles northeast of Arlington, he was flanked on stage by veterans of past wars, in front of a giant C-130J like the one he used to fly. Chris Kyle’s widow spoke. The true stars were Morgan and Marcus Luttrell, two former Navy SEALs who stood on both sides of Perry, silent sentinels. Marcus, played by Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor, is a heartland celebrity in his own right. To the delight and mock horror of conservatives, few watching from New York and Washington D.C. had any idea who they were.
Visions of hyper-competent gunmen able to navigate a bloody and confusing world are deeply soothing to many people. 13 Hours is a movie in which strong men hold all the answers, and most everyone else is full of shit. As the Obama era ends, that captures the mood among many Americans quite nicely. Krasinski, who must be delighted to distance himself from his T.V. fame, puts it in simpler terms. “It’s a superhero movie without superheroes,” he told Fox News.
Maybe. It’s also an artifact of a culture that is slowly becoming accustomed to, and finding things to celebrate in, endless war. A culture in which sacrifice is glorified, but the reason for the sacrifice—and the wisdom of it—need not be addressed.
Christopher Hooks is a journalist based in Austin.
Top image via Getty, other photographs courtesy the author.