In this election season, the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, has become Republican shorthand for Democrat incompetence and government cover-up. Michael Bay's film on Benghazi, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, stokes the Republican anti-Hillary fire. It also helps enshrine a particular narrative. Brooke talks with Peter Maass, senior editor at The Intercept, about how movies depicting important political moments come to shape public understanding of those events.
BOB: This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. In this election season, the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, has become Republican shorthand for Democrat incompetence and government cover-up. Michael Bay, director of the Transformers franchise, has chosen to depict what transpired in his latest explosive would-be blockbuster, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. It’s based on a book written by journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff from the accounts of five CIA security contractors. Republicans from Ted Cruz to Fox’s Megyn Kelly have all but touted the film as Hillary’s political downfall.
KELLY: You go and you sit through 13 Hours. You sit there, white-knuckled, when you can’t move at the end of it, and a tear comes to your eye, unless you’re not human. And you tell me whether this is going to have no impact on the story of Benghazi, which IS relevant in this 2016 Presidential campaign Chris.
BROOKE: Despite Congressional investigations that found no deliberate wrongdoing on the part of the US government, the movie-going public may well feel differently. That’s the question, right? How much do movies depicting important political moments - 13 Hours, American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, Oliver Stone’s JFK, shape the public’s understanding of those events? Peter Maass, senior editor at The Intercept where he covers media and national security, says the problem stems from the lack of political context. Peter, welcome back to the show.
MAASS: Great to be with you.
BROOKE: So you wrote, would you give the story of Benghazi to the producers of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Someone did. The new result is the film directed by Michael Bay, which makes Rambo, you said, look like War and Peace.
-- Stop man, state's under attack!
-- U.S. Ambassador's at risk.
-- The ambassador is in his safe haven. You're not the first responders, you're the last resort. You will wait.
BROOKE: Michael Bay claims that his film is not beholden to either political side of the Benghazi argument, that it is an unbiased account.
MAASS: Well what is it an account of? If it is just an account of these few events that happened in Benghazi dramatic as they were on that evening, I guess that's okay. But the problem is that it leaves out so very much. Like, why were these contractors here, why did this attack happen? What role did the US have in Libya? It is such a very very narrow and one sided account, that it really does a disservice and is untruthful actually.
BROOKE: You see people worshiping Islam on their prayer rugs as their AK 47s stand nearby.
MAASS: Which is really unfortunate. that is what you see and all that you see in terms of Islam and Libya in this movie. But the one thing that kind of went unmentioned in this movie and that was one of its travesties I thought is that this is a movie that was really about private military contractors. These folks were retired soldiers who were now working for private contractors or were independent contractors themselves at the Central Intelligence Agency or at the State Department.
BROOKE; And they were depicted as family men who were in part warriors by nature but also they need the money.
MAASS: They fought very heroically and bravely in this particular incident in Benghazi and that is all fine and good. But there's a context that is totally lacking and that is totally important, which is that private military contractors are one of the kind of major banes of American warfare post 9/11. I was in Iraq, I was in Afghanistan and the greatest danger to me in Baghdad in 2005 was first number one the private military contractors, then the US Army, and then three, the militias in the Iraqis who were attacking Americans and the private military contractors. The private military contractors were a threat to everybody in Baghdad in those years because they would barrel through with their weapons drawn, firing much more loosely than the US Army patrols would. And the impact of what they were doing in terms of shooting civilians was so detrimental that even US Army soldiers complained to me about these guys.
BROOKE: But what place would that kind of context have in a movie like 13 Hours?
MAASS: That's a really good question because I think that Michael Bay would probably say look, this wasn't a movie about the general context of private military contractors, it was just a movie about Benghazi. And I get that. But the problem is that you have to have at least some nod toward the much more important political truth that you are making your film about, otherwise the film is unlike what it says in the beginning is not a true story.
BROOKE: It's weird but the only moment when there is a suggestion that these contractors may have a bad reputation is offered by the CIA chief, who is in a sense a kind of hapless villain, in this film. His delay in letting these military contractors go to the embassy and defend the ambassador who was there, basically resulted in the death of ambassador. This is the fulcrum on which this story turns. And it's disputed the actual CIA station chief on which this character is based, said I never gave an order to stand down which he explicitly gives in the film. Of course he wouldn't talk to Michael Bay --
MAASS: So when you say it's a true story, who is right in the end? I don't know. What i do know from having covered a lot of military operations is that delays happen all of the time for all kinds of reasons. Was this something that was so unusual that it rises to the level of almost criminal culpability on the part of the Secretary of State at the time, somebody named Hillary Clinton? I certainly don't think so, but that obviously is one of the connected issues that a lot of people have been trying to make some political gain out of, and using that film to make that point.
BROOKE: Many filmmakers and critics say that it's just a movie, do you think it's fair to judge a piece of dramatic filmmaking on its historical accuracy, even if it claims to be a true story?
MAASS: Well I think so, I mean I think when you say that a movie is a true story, or based on a true story, you are connecting what you are presenting in some way to actual events. If you're doing a film about something that is of not much political consequence where people getting the wrong impression of what happened isn't gonna harm anybody? Um --
BROOKE: The first time we addressed this issue I think on our program was when the film Gladiator came out and we hda historians saying there were never any tigers in the Roman forum! But the stakes there, not so high.
MAASS: Not so high, you know, no tigers will be sacrificed in the future as a result of the historical inaccuracies of Gladiator. But the stakes do get high when the myth that you're presenting, the inaccuracies that you're presenting, lead to people's opinions being changed so that future actions occur that do harm people, such as wars being supported that perhaps they shouldn't be because people have the wrong idea about what really goes on overseas, people have the wrong idea about what threat Islam presents. So that people don't misunderstand whether or not torture is actually something that works and that should be used. These are real world consequences that are quite significant,, and so then the question becomes do these films really change peoples views? And in one of the stories that I did I came across this study from 2 researchers and so what that study showed is that when you show a film that has a political message to an audience, it can certainly change their point of view, because it comes in the context of a feature film rather than news on tv, when people watch news on TV, they kind of know, you know, this is news, this is information, this could be biased because people are using the airwaves to get their points across.
BROOKE: Are you saying that people are more skeptical of news than they are of Hollywood?
MAASS: Shocking, I know. And excuse me while I shuffle off to the casino and become shocked about the gambling going on there too.
BROOKE: Peter, thank you so much.
MAASS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE: Peter Maass is a senior editor at the Intercept.