13 Hours
Courtesy of Paramount

If you went to see “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” this weekend, chances are you won’t be voting for Hillary Clinton in the next presidential election.

Michael Bay’s account of the security team tasked with defending the American diplomatic compound in Libya from a 2012 terrorist attack, has become the latest example of the polarized nature of the electorate and, by extension, the moviegoing public. Like “American Sniper” before it, the action thriller has emerged as a rallying point for those on the right and a punching bag for others on the left.

“With these war films, the real life drama that surrounds them is central to their appeal,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “This is another film about a hot button issue.”

“13 Hours'” box office performance reflected the film’s divisive nature. The action thriller did well in red states, generating 41% of the $19 million it stands to make this weekend from theaters in the South. Those areas out-performed blue states by 25%. Most other releases this weekend made up 33% of their grosses in these regions.

Paramount, the studio behind the $50 million war drama, said it has not polled ticket-buyers on their political affiliation, but studio executives believe that the results show that Republicans turned out in greater force.

“It feels like it was hard for people to buy a ticket if they were more liberal leaning,” said Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice-chairman. “It’s sad that this gets turned into a political debate as opposed to a conversation about who did the right thing and who was heroic.”

Benghazi has become so politicized that it can be easy to lose track of the the 2012 attack’s human toll. The assault on the compound by Islamic militants resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, but along with national expressions of grief and anger, it touched off a series of congressional investigations into the Obama administration’s response.

Supporters of Hillary Clinton maintain those hearings are political theater designed to weaken the presidential candidate’s standing in the polls by arguing that the then Secretary of State ignored requests from U.S. diplomats in Libya for better security.

“13 Hours” tried to steer clear of the political minefields. It does not mention Clinton, for instance. Instead it focuses on the members of the security squad who were on the ground during the deadly siege, offering up the kinds of gun battles and explosions that have made Bay one of the foremost providers of cinematic mayhem.

Despite the efforts to remain above the fray, the film is raising the ire of certain Beltway figures. CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani, was quoted in a Washington Post story, labeling the film as a “distortion” and Clinton was dismissive as she told CNN this weekend that she was “too busy campaigning” to see the film.

The reaction on the other side of the political aisle has been dramatically different. Republicans have rallied to the film. Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, made a point of name-checking the movie in a recent debate, and his opponent Donald Trump one upped him by offering free tickets to an Iowa showing of the picture.   A recent Washington D.C. screening brought a packed crowd that included Republican operatives and politicians such as GOP lawmakers Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Darrell Issa.

Moore said the studio did not offer to show the film to Clinton or President Obama before its premiere this week.

“We didn’t reach out to politicians to try to screen the movie,” said Moore. “We wanted the pre-opening discussion to focus on the movie itself.”

The film is a departure for Bay, who is best known for overseeing the “Transformers” and “Bad Boys” franchises. Though “American Sniper” became the highest-grossign domestic release of 2014, studios tend to steer clear of politically charged movies such as “13 Hours.” For one thing, they tend not to play as well internationally — a major drawback at a time when foreign ticket sales can comprise nearly 70% of a picture’s gross.

But this was a passion project for Bay and a reward for his role in guiding the “Transformers” films for Paramount. It’s no accident that the studio recently announced Bay will direct the fifth film in the Autobots series.

Reviews for the picture were middling, but those who saw the movie, liked it. It received an A CinemaScore. Unlike “American Sniper” or other military dramas such as “Lone Survivor,” “13 Hours” lacked a major star on the level of Bradley Cooper or Mark Wahlberg.

Analysts believe that the debate surrounding the film drove ticket sales. Polling suggests that its topicality was key to its appeal — the film’s subject matter was cited by 38 percent of ticket buyers as the reason they saw “13 Hours,” according to Rentrak’s post-track survey. That far outstrips any other motivation they cited.

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media at Rentrak. “People are talking about this movie.”

Moore said he always expected the film would be given the cold shoulder in certain parts of the country.

Paramount’s decision to stage the premiere for “13 Hours” in the Texas stadium that houses the Dallas Cowboys as opposed to New York or Los Angeles demonstrates the studio knew where the picture would resonate.

“The challenge with this issue is it’s hard to focus on the heroism,” said Moore. “Instead it becomes a debate about what went wrong and who is responsible.”

Fairly or not, many of the people who pay money to see “13 Hours” will have deeply held convictions about who is to blame.

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