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‘13 Hours’ Is Light on Politics, But Sure to Stir Benghazi Controversy

Michael Bay’s “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” does not contain any mention of Hillary Clinton. Also not named is President Obama. At times, the movie even goes out of its way to avoid politics, as the director has said that he has no political agenda.

But any movie about Benghazi is bound to still get caught up in the political fray, particularly one that is being released just weeks before voters caucus in Iowa in the official kickoff of the presidential race.

Conservative media for weeks has been abuzz about how the movie may impact Clinton’s presidential hopes, even as her campaign has so far avoided comment.

Last week, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly previewed the movie on “The Kelly File” and interviewed three of the CIA contractors at the center of the movie. Kelly introduced the segment as the “gripping new film that may pose a threat to Hillary Clinton’s hopes for the White House.” She then showed footage from the film.

Sean Hannity interviewed three of the contractors, Mark “Oz” Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paronto and John “Tig” Tiegen, on his radio show and Fox News program.

The movie focuses on the team of security contractors housed at a secret CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, and how they put their lives on the line to respond to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the nearby consulate.

Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed, but the events of that evening almost immediately became a lightning rod in the presidential election that year. That has continued into the most recent campaign, in GOP attacks on Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, and on Capitol Hill, where a special Benghazi committee queried her in an October hearing that stretched to almost 11 hours.

In the National Review, Stephen Miller wrote that Bay’s “straightforward portrayal of the attack will be as close as pop culture comes to analyzing the failures of the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton that night. Still, the fact that there is any reminder of Benghazi in our popular culture at all is doubtless giving the Clinton campaign major headaches.”

Media Matters for America, the watchdog group that has been critical of Fox News reporting, already has countered the way that the network has covered the movie.

“Interviewing three of the former CIA contractors about the movie based on their book, Kelly sought to revive long-debunked myths about the Obama administration’s efforts to respond to the attack,” Media Matters said.

Paramount premiered the movie in Dallas on Tuesday night at a benefit for veterans in AT&T Stadium and to honor the contractors and those who died in the attacks. Bay told one reporter that the city was “a great place to show it because it is the heartland of America.”

“It’s a powerful movie, and hopefully this gets the word out,” he said.

Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore told Variety that they expected about 12,000 to 15,000 people to show up for the event; as it turned out, 32,000 did.

Moore said that what particularly intrigued them was “this amazing story that was getting lost in the politics.”

“The fact of the matter is the word ‘Benghazi’ has been so connected to political debate that you can’t avoid the politics,” Moore said. “Our hope is that when people see the movie, it turns into a conversation about the heroism of these guys, about how some people lay down their lives to save others. “

The studio has aimed the movie at military- and faith-based communities, and the real-life contractors have made multiple appearances in conservative media. Cinemark, which has a big footprint in the South, is hosting pre-release screenings in more than 100 theaters on Thursday, with Bay, producer Erwin Stoff and real life contractors Geist, Paronto and Tiegen appearing in a Los Angeles Q&A live streamed to other theaters after the screening. “We are embracing the people who we really believe connect with this material,” Moore said.

While the movie is debuting on the cusp of a presidential primary, Paramount actually is following the same time frame of recent movies that have captured military and national security sacrifice in the Middle East, including “American Sniper” last year, “Lone Survivor” in 2014 and “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2013, all of which debuted in January.

Moore said that the release date was a function of Bay’s production schedule as well as the three-day holiday weekend.

“If this movie came out closer to the general election, that is when this movie would become a political lightning rod,” Moore said.

Bay’s film is based on “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” which was written by Mitchell Zuckoff and the security team, prefaced by a note about how they are avoiding the “political storm” and instead want to tell “what they did, what they saw, and what happened to them.”

The book and the movie do not avoid what has been a point of contention. As the consulate is under siege and Stevens and security personnel call for help, the security contractors at the annex are told by the CIA chief there to “stand down” and wait, causing a delay in response of about 20 minutes.

That “stand down” order has been among the most controversial aspects of the Benghazi story. In the book and the movie, the CIA chief  tells them to wait, as he seeks out a local militia to respond to the siege. As the situation gets more dire, the contractors buck the “stand down” order and leave for the consulate.

Congressional investigators concluded there was no stand down order — even if there was confusion — but the contractors insist those words were used.

That moment has been for years the source of criticism from the right, the implication being that the “stand down” order came from higher up in the Obama administration and that calls for help were ignored. The movie does not delve into that claim. Tiegen told Hannity last week that he did not think that the order came “from above.” “I honestly don’t,” he said.

The movie does show how security at the consulate was insufficient and requests for additional measures were denied. The movie ends with a postscript of what happened to Libya, that it descended into a failed state and a haven for ISIS, points that have been brought up in Democratic and Republican debates.

But the question of the U.S. involvement in Libya is also left to the viewer to decide. The movie opens with a recap of the U.S. assistance that help depose longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, killed in October 2011, but toward the end of the movie, one of the contractors asks why they are there. Before the fateful attacks, Stevens is shown giving an impassioned if naive speech on America’s humanitarian goals for Libya, while one of the contractors, Paronto nods off.

Photo: The premiere of “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” at the AT& T Center in Dallas on Tuesday.

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