Shortly before Michael Bay's latest movie, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, hit theaters, The Hollywood Reporter published a long report on how the film had been carefully marketed to conservative pundits. In return, the film was praised as “riveting” and “extraordinary” by people the studio could use to validate the movie to their hoped-for audience.
This is not a case of conservatives desperate for movies that speak even vaguely to their values getting hoodwinked by Hollywood.
President Obama is barely a presence in 13 Hours, and the film never mentions Hillary Clinton. But it's full of the kind of dog-whistles that are engineered to appeal to conservative moviegoers who have been imbibing conspiracy theories about Benghazi for years.
“You Will Wait”
Over the years, the right-wing media has developed a series of myths around the idea that a “stand down order” was issued by someone high up in the Obama administration. According to the conspiracy, this was a “political decision not to rescue” the Americans because they were “expendable.” According to CIA personnel, the Pentagon, the House Armed Services Committee, the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, Tripoli commander Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and nine other military officers, no such order was ever given.
13 Hours nods to the myth. As it becomes clear to the characters that the State Department compound has come under attack and Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) is endangered, the CIA contractors gear up and prepare to rush to their aid. This results in an angry confrontation between Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), the leader of the contractors, and the CIA base chief Bob (David Costabile), who wants them to wait while he tries to rally State's local Libyan guards rather than reveal the presence of the CIA base and endanger the lives of the Americans there.
“We're not supposed to be here,” Bob tells Woods. “You will wait.” Woods responds by mocking Bob's concerns and driving off with the other contractors as Bob is left to limply yell that they are not cleared to go.
The scene itself has some possible truth to it -- while there are disagreements over whether the real-life CIA contractors were literally told to “stand down,” it's long been known that they argued with their base chief for roughly 20 minutes over how to respond to the attack before going to the State facility. But right-wing media have used the depiction of the events in the film as evidence that their initial conspiracy was accurate, moving the goalposts in order to justify their past claims.
“I Called For Air Support -- It Never Came”
To the conservative mythmakers, the “stand down order” is significant because, they claim, the United States had all sorts of military assets available that could have saved the lives of the Americans killed in Benghazi -- but those assets never showed up, because of the government's inexplicable refusal to use them. They specifically cite the supposed failure of the military to send a fighter jet over Benghazi as an example of the government's unwillingness to help Americans in peril.
In fact, several special operations teams were ordered to deploy, but did not arrive in Libya until long after the attack had concluded. The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee determined that there were not any "response alternatives that could have likely changed the outcome of the Benghazi attack."
Military leaders agree, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has accused critics who claim more U.S. forces should have responded of having a “cartoonish impression of military capabilities.” Gates also explained why sending a fighter jet over Benghazi would have been a bad idea:
And frankly I've heard, well, why didn't you just fly a fighter jet over there to scare 'em with the noise or something. Given the number of surface to air missiles that have disappeared from Qaddafi's arsenals I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft, over Benghazi under those circumstances.
Bay's 13 Hours shows the Americans under fire baffled by the inability of their government to provide aid, specifically their failure to have a fighter jet perform a flyover of the annex. CIA analyst Sona Jillani (Alexia Barlier) leads the effort, calling up the military and asking for a “low loud f-you flight,” only to be rebuffed. “I called for air support -- it never came,” she tells the contractors as they mourn for their fallen comrades.
At times, the film provides a broader perspective, briefly detailing the deployment of special operations forces and F-16s prepping on the tarmac. But most of the film is tightly centered on the events on the ground in Benghazi, and so it never explains why they don't show up. Without more explanation, viewers with limited knowledge of the attacks have little choice but to believe the right-wing narrative.
“I Didn't See Any Protests”
Right-wing media have spent years pushing the myth that the Obama administration deliberately misled the public by tying the attack to an anti-Islam YouTube video that triggered massive anti-American protests across the Middle East in September 2012.
As congressional investigations have found, the Obama administration had been referencing initial reports from the CIA that the Benghazi attacks had grown out of protests against the video. The attackers reportedly “did tell bystanders that they were attacking the compound because they were angry about the video,” and the assault's alleged ringleader reportedly said that they were acting in “retaliation” for the video.
In one of the film's oddest moments, some of the special operators are talking on the roof of part of the CIA annex between attacks when one says he had heard that American press are reporting on the attack on the diplomatic facility, but that they are “saying it's a street protest about an anti-Islam film.” “I didn't see a protest,” another replies.