At 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Republican operatives, politicians, and reporters packed into a crowded movie theater in Washington, D.C.’s posh Georgetown neighborhood. They were there to eat popcorn, drink soda, and watch 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the feature film depicting the deadly siege of a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya in 2012.
Hillary Clinton is not mentioned in the movie. But she certainly was talked about at the private screening and during the reception that followed at Georgetown’s luxe Ritz-Carlton hotel a few blocks away. In fact, talking about Clinton was pretty much the point of the event hosted by Republican opposition-research groups America Rising and Future45. Anti-Clinton ads played on loop in place of the usual previews. As guests trickled into the theater, organizers passed out copies of an article headlined: “The Movie Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Want You to See.”
Senator Tom Cotton, an outspoken critic of President Obama’s foreign policy and a rising star in the Republican party, staked out a seat near the front of the theater, popcorn in hand. Representative Darrell Issa, known for his dramatic flair as the former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, walked over to chat before the movie started. (Issa said something about the popcorn, then began talking about the previous night’s Republican primary debate.)
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.”
Loyal devotees of Hillary Clinton have been quick to counterpunch. “There’s no scandal, only a partisan witch hunt,” declared a U.S. News and World Report op-ed written by David Brock, the founder of liberal watchdog Media Matters for America, timed for the release of the film. The Clinton campaign has worked hard to paint Republican fascination with Benghazi as a partisan political ploy. Meanwhile, the CIA is pushing back against the movie. “No one will mistake this movie for a documentary,” a CIA spokesperson told the Washington Post. “It’s a distortion of the events and people that served in Benghazi that night.”
It seems unlikely that 13 Hours will change minds among those who have followed the issue closely. Still, conservatives aren’t wrong to think that seeing the story of the deadly siege play out on the big screen is different, and could prove more powerful, than watching hours of televised testimony delivered by Clinton on Capitol Hill.
“What it does is it allows people to get a proper visualization of what really happened, the hopelessness of America not responding,” Issa said in an interview after the movie. “If Hillary becomes president, this mar will still be there. If Hillary isn’t president, the next president will still have to fix some entrenched failure that caused this to happen.”