At least one major studio is thinking about bringing the Benghazi tragedy to the big screen.
In the last year Paramount has brought out films as diverse as The Wolf of Wall Street and Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa. Now, Deadline Hollywood reports, the studio is “negotiating with 3 Arts Entertainment to acquire the film rights to the forthcoming book Thirteen Hours: A Firsthand Account Of What Really Happened In Benghazi.
The book, slated for release this spring purportedly offers a play-by-play of the firefight as told by surviving members of the compound security team. An eye-witness account of the slaughter of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans is the very stuff of drama. And how Hollywood chooses to handle this hot topic is sure to spur speculation and controversy.
For starters, the timing of film will be interesting. At least two major characters involved in the Benghazi crisis and its aftermath, Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have been talked-up as future presidential candidates. A film that comes out in the middle of primary season might spice up the race a bit.
This would be far from the first time films and politics made for a wicked cocktail. Concerned that their film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), would be perceived as a crass commercial for President Obama’s 2011 reelection campaign, the producers made rounds on the Hill explaining to lawmakers that they were just making a movie. Ultimately, they delayed the release of the film until after the election to dodge the controversy.
Coincidentally timed films are nothing new. The 1941 biopic Sergeant York retold the story of America’s most famous World War I combat hero. Though wildly popular, the movie deeply rankled some in Washington. The Senate even held hearings on “Moving-Picture and Radio Propaganda.” At one hearing, isolationist Sen. D. Worth Clark (D-Ida.), who wanted to keep America out of World War II, railed against the film’s producers, declaring “at the present time they have opened those 17,000 theaters to the idea of war, to the glorification of war, to the glorification of England’s imperialism, to the hatred of the people of Germany and now of France, to the hatred of those in America who disagree with them….”
Of course, Warner Brothers loved the attention. Sergeant York was the highest grossing film of the year.
The timing won’t be the only issue surrounding a film about the Benghazi debacle. Regardless of when it hits the screen, the producers can play with controversy by widening or shrinking the aperture of the story. For example, the riveting war movie Blackhawk Down (2001), which tells the tale of the disastrous military operation in Somalia, is virtually devoid of context. Watching the film, the audience couldn’t even guess that Bill Clinton was president, or that anyone outside the battlefield might have had anything to do with creating the bizarre circumstances under which the U.S. forces had to fight.
Rather than stick to the battle story, however, a film could pull back and try to tell the big picture as well. After all, optioning a book doesn’t necessarily obligate the producers to limit themselves to what’s written between the covers. The Revolutionary War flick The Patriot (2000), for example, pulled from the real-life stories of four different fighters, combined them into one character and added scenes to explain the course of the whole conflict to the audience.
In scope, a Benghazi movie could stretch from the burned-out offices at the consulate to the Oval Office. In time, the narrative could reach back to Obama’s first days in office when he eschewed Bush’s “big footprint” for solving foreign policy problems and instead opted for “smart power” and safer “small footprints” which, of course, in Libya proved not so smart and not so safe.
The problem with trying to tell the “big” picture is that the further one moves from the details of the battle of Benghazi, the fuzzier the record is and the more disagreements and interpretations arise over who did what and why. Everything from the original Sunday talk show talking points to a precise explanation of how the chain-of-command worked on the day of the attack is in dispute. So much remains “a gray area” surrounding the attack because, since the first hours of the incident, the White House has paltered with the truth rather that make a good faith effort to “tell all” about Benghazi..
Of course, lack of facts isn’t necessarily a problem for Hollywood. Scriptwriters can just make things up. After all, it’s just a movie.
But, of course, moviegoers often confuse fact with fiction. The hilarious parody of how Washington works in war, Wag the Dog (1997), presented a fictional president who engineers a war to distract from domestic scandal. Many suspected, the film was really the story of Clinton’s military intervention in the Balkans at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The myth became so prevalent, Clinton’s former Defense Secretary William Cohen felt he had to debunk it when he testified before the 9/11 commission.
We don’t really need another White House conspiracy theory film at this point. That’s why we have the second season of House of Cards and Scandal on reruns.
On the other hand, we don’t need another celluloid whitewash of Washington.
What America needs is a really good film.
A really good film would stick to the story of the brave ones who went into harm’s way on our behalf. If it goes beyond that, it should intimate what we can do to best honor their service—i.e., what we can learn from their sacrifice to help avoid a repetition of fatal errors..
A really good Benghazi film could serve a really good public purpose: as a cautionary tale for the future. A recent House report on Benghazi documents something not in dispute: that the security umbrella in place was inadequate to meet the known terrorist threat facing the embassy team. That situation is only likely to get worse in the years ahead as the administration continues to cut military capabilities. At some point, they will become inadequate even to cover “peacetime” needs.
Currently, dozens of U.S. embassies, consulates and missions around the world are rated “high risk.” In other words the State Department worries they could be attacked. At anytime.
We could abandon our place in the world. But, that makes little sense. Our outposts are the clearest and boldest statement of U.S determination to represent our national interests and promote the global advance of prosperity, peace and freedom Providing them with adequate security shouldn’t be optional. Yet, in Benghazi, it was.
Sadly, it is not clear Washington has learned any lessons. To cover the expanse from the Mediterranean to central Africa, the Pentagon already plans to have fewer and less capable forces than were available on that fateful day in Benghazi–even though Africa and the Middle East are much more dangerous places now than they were a few years ago.
Last year, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, under its energetic Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), crafted a responsible embassy security bill. But the legislation looks dead in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid seems to believe there are more important matters to attend to—like naming post offices.
And, while there is a strong and righteous chorus in Congress willing to continue to demand that the American people get the whole story, there is far smaller claque intent on making sure that the next Benghazi never happens.
We must learn from the tragedy of Benghazi how to do better. Perhaps a great film would remind Washington of that obligation.