‘13 Hours’ streers clear of politics – Benghazi author stands by pivotal ‘stand-down’ scene

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This photo provided by Paramount Pictures shows Alexia Barlier as Sona Julliani, in the film ‘13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ from Paramount Pictures and 3 Arts Entertainment/Bay Films. The movie released in US theatres Jan 15. (AP)
This photo provided by Paramount Pictures shows Alexia Barlier as Sona Julliani, in the film ‘13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ from Paramount Pictures and 3 Arts Entertainment/Bay Films. The movie released in US theatres Jan 15. (AP)

MIAMI, Jan 16, (AP): The very word “Benghazi” screams politics to most people — especially in this election year. So, is it even possible to make a movie about the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that’s NOT political?

“I know it’s possible to MAKE a film about Benghazi that’s not about the politics, because we’ve made one,” says Erwin Stoff, producer of “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” which opened Friday. “I don’t know if it’s possible to VIEW a film about Benghazi and not launch into a political conversation.”

He’s certainly got the second part right at least: On opening day, there was already controversy: a report that the real CIA station chief depicted in the film disputes a pivotal scene in which his character issues a “stand down” order to the security team (the so-called Global Response Staff) preparing to rush to the aid of diplomats under siege — including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans who died in the attacks. The Washington Post tracked down the chief, identified only as “Bob.”

The author of the book on which the film was based, Mitchell Zuckoff, rejected the contention, telling The Associated Press on Friday that he has four men who were at the scene attesting to the stand-down order (two of them heard it directly, he says). He said the CIA chief’s comments were “not credible” but likely stem from regret over the ultimate death of the ambassador from smoke inhalation.

But Stoff and director Michael Bay, speaking in recent interviews, insisted that the film steers clear of politics by focusing on the “human” story of the security men — contractors hired to protect the base — who did rush in anyway (after 20 mins, according to the film) and fight the attackers, saving many more lives during a 13 hr-siege.

Bay, known best for his blockbuster “Transformers” series, sat down with the Associated Press in Miami recently to discuss the film. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity).

Associated Press: How is this movie not political?

Bay: How is it not political? Because listen, we all think we know Benghazi. But there was a great human story, that got buried. And that’s the story I’m telling: the guys who were on the ground. The men and women that were stuck in the CIA annex, and how they fought for 13 hrs to get out of there alive.

We worked very hard to get the facts right from the research of the book that (author Zuckoff) did to the amazing access I have from working 20 years with the military, from the boots on the ground, the people who were in country to the CIA at a high level meeting to get just the facts right, the recently released emails. We just had to get it right.

AP: Who do you think was to blame for what happened?

Bay: Listen it was 13 hrs, 13 hrs. There’s a pink elephant sitting in the room when you’ve got the most powerful country in the world, bases. I mean when I sat with the CIA I said ‘C’mon guys,’ I started naming Aviano, Sigonella (bases), really? It’s an F16 flight, its 50 mins — flight time overhead is 30 minutes. Listen I’m just saying, we show what was out there, and that’s what we did. I’m not pointing fingers, I’m just giving the facts, I’m showing what was out there.

AP: Do you think the movie will influence the election?

Bay: No, no. What this is is an inspirational human story. And this is a classic nightmare story. It’s a story when you have a nightmare, you want heroes like this to rescue you from your nightmares. And this is a movie — because I worked with so many special operators in the military, I worked in the military for so long, I’m personal friends with so many of them, I wanted to give integrity to the story, I wanted to tell the story because there’s a positive message in it, in the human spirit … It’s a movie that honors all first responders, from firemen to policemen to the men and women in the military that do this.

AP: Was it important to leave out the name of Hillary Clinton?

Bay: It wasn’t even on the radar for this movie. I was telling their story on the ground from these guys’ point of view.

AP: What kind of reaction do you hope from the military community?

Bay: People who have seen it have said it’s one of the finest, most accurate military movies they’ve seen — that was a direct quote from somebody. One of the best friends of Tyrone Woods (a security team member who died) said, ‘I want to thank you so much, you did my friend justice and honor.

AP: What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?

Bay: Just the great human story that you never are told. It just wasn’t covered. I mean I watched every news station. I’m a news junkie.

AP: Will this movie appeal more to conservatives or liberals?

Bay: I think it’s even, because at the heart, it’s a human story. That’s what shines here.

“Stand down,” says the actor playing the CIA station chief in Michael Bay’s new film, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” He’s speaking to the security team that wants to go help Americans under siege less than a mile away in a US diplomatic compound under fierce attack. His order keeps the team from leaving for a crucial 20 mins, before they decide to ignore him and go anyway.

It’s the pivotal — and most controversial — scene in the new film, a movie that Bay insists steered clear of politics, but which is bound to spark much political discussion nonetheless. On Friday — the movie’s opening day — the Washington Post quoted the now-retired CIA station chief, identified only as Bob, as strongly denying he ever issued such an order or anything like it.

“There never was a stand-down order,” the base chief was quoted by the Post as saying. “At no time did I ever second-guess that the team would depart.”

The author of the book upon which the film is based, Mitchell Zuckoff, stood by his depiction of the scene on Friday, saying in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that he’d based it on several firsthand accounts. Zuckoff collaborated on his book, “13 Hours,” with some of the surviving security contractors. He also said he had sought when researching the book to interview the station chief, but the request had been denied.

“It’s not credible what he’s claiming,” Zuckoff said of the station chief, who he said he assumed was changing the story because of what ultimately happened: US Ambassador Christopher Stevens died in the attacks of smoke inhalation. Foreign Service officer Sean Smith also died, and two CIA security contractors were killed later.

In November 2014, a two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee found that the CIA and military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on the compound. Among other findings, it determined that there was no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, and no missed opportunity for a military rescue.

In Washington, CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani referred to those findings and others as making it clear that the scene in the film is inaccurate. “If one is looking for facts on Benghazi, those reviews contain them,” he said.

“No one will mistake this movie for a documentary,” Trapani added. “It’s a distortion of the events and people who served in Benghazi that night. It’s shameful that, in order to highlight the heroism of some, those responsible for the movie felt the need to denigrate the courage of other Americans who served in harm’s way.”

Trapani called what happened in Benghazi on the night of Sept 11, 2012, “an amazing tale of heroism, courage under fire, leadership and camaraderie by the CIA security team, other CIA officers, State Department personnel, and those who came on the evacuation mission from Tripoli.”

In the Post report, the station chief, Bob, also challenged the movie’s depiction of him as treating the security contractors —members of the so-called Global Response Staff — dismissively and derisively as “hired help,” in the words of the film script.

“These guys were heroes,” he was quoted as saying by the Post.

Zuckoff, who now teaches journalism at Boston University, said he wasn’t surprised that the movie has sparked political discussion.

“It would be naive to think that some won’t view it through a political lens,” he said. “But it’s not what we set out to do in the book or movie.”

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