The significance of the night was clear. For conservatives, Benghazi is a symbol of the failed leadership of Clinton and Obama. Many fault the administration for not taking decisive action to counter the deadly attack, which they see as proof of American military decline. Making that point loud and clear to the American public, however, has been something of a challenge.
For all the hype surrounding the high-profile investigation of the attacks led by Trey Gowdy, the chair of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Republicans have so far failed to unearth any evidence of wrongdoing capable of sinking Clinton’s political prospects.
But now, there’s a sense that things might change. 13 Hours is based on a book of the same name written by Mitchell Zuckoff along with five CIA contractors stationed near the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The film’s fictionalized account of the attack paints a bleak picture. It’s difficult to walk away from the movie without thinking that more should have been done to help the Americans under siege by Islamic militants in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. The attack killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Throughout the movie, the actors cast as American CIA contractors wonder aloud why the cavalry isn’t coming, and voice frustration that it’s not, as attacks intensify. That narrative is what Republicans believe may convince the American public to see what happened at Benghazi the way they do—as a symbol of government failure and Clintonian wrongdoing.
During a panel discussion in a candle-lit room with exposed brick walls at the Ritz-Carlton after the screening, Cotton used the movie as a jumping off point to excoriate the former secretary of state. “The actions you saw on the film highlight the utter negligence of Hillary Clinton’s State Department leading up to the Benghazi attack,” Cotton declared. “Hillary Clinton was negligent at a minimum … her conduct was grotesque,” the senator said, assertions that met with approving applause in the room full of Republican operatives.
The event felt like a living embodiment of the political tribalism that sometimes seems to define Washington. Guests sipped wine and picked at tiny appetizers. (One man stood out from the crowd with a bright red Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” hat). If they registered any irony that the political right, which often denounces Hollywood as a liberal haven, was now rushing to embrace a Michael Bay movie, they managed not to show it.
Republican presidential candidates are also working hard to publicize the movie. Donald Trump gave away free tickets to the movie at an Iowa theater. Ted Cruz plugged the film at Thursday’s Republican primary debate: “Tomorrow morning, a new movie will debut about the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives in Benghazi and the politicians that abandoned them.”