- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 14, 2016

It’s enough to turn Republicans into Hollywood fans: A big-budget action movie about the 2012 terrorist raid on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi hits theaters Friday, reigniting debate over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s role in the deadly attack.

Director Michael Bay has insisted that “13 Hours” has “no political agenda,” and Mrs. Clinton, now the Democratic presidential front-runner, is never mentioned by name, even though the attack occurred on her watch. Still, it’s hard to see an upside for Mrs. Clinton or Democrats in a pivotal election year.

“Even if an unmentioned Hillary Clinton has nothing specific to worry about in regard to the film’s content, its mere existence will stir up fresh talk about her behavior regarding the incident,” said Todd McCarthy in his Wednesday review for The Hollywood Reporter.

Case in point: An emotional Pat Smith, mother of slain foreign service officer Sean Smith, said this week that she walked out of this week’s premiere after the actor portraying her son appeared on film.

“I couldn’t handle it. Hillary is a liar!” Ms. Smith told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly.

Campaign politics aside, that Paramount Pictures would greenlight a pro-military movie on Benghazi comes as something of a triumph for conservative audiences, the latest acknowledgment that patriotic, right-of-center movies are no longer anathema in Hollywood.

Credit two films released around the last two Christmas and New Year’s holiday seasons: “Lone Survivor” starring Mark Wahlberg, the story of four Navy SEALs in Afghanistan that was a surprise hit in late 2013, and “American Sniper,” the 2014 Clint Eastwood movie about military sharpshooter Chris Kyle that became a cultural and box office phenomenon.

“The success of not just ‘American Sniper’ but also ‘Lone Survivor’ had an impact on this getting approved,” said movie critic Christian Toto of Hollywoodintoto.com. “Listen, Hollywood has its causes, and they’re not always superkeen on presenting the military in a noble fashion, but they also see the dollars and cents.”

Those films came in stark contrast to Hollywood’s previous string of movies portraying the military in a harsh light.

“We looked at a whole bunch of what were called anti-military movies in the 2000s — ‘In the Valley of Elah,’ ‘Redacted,’ ‘Green Zone’ — and they all bombed,” Mr. Toto said. “And then along comes ‘Lone Survivor,’ and it’s a big hit, and then of course ‘American Sniper’ was a huge hit. So I think that really kind of set the stage for something like ‘13 Hours.’”

Based on the book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” the movie follows six members of a military-trained security team who tried to save the compound after it was attacked by Islamist terrorists on the anniversary of 9/11.

The runup to the attack, and the U.S. response to it, remain fiercely debated in Washington. President Obama, trapped in a heated re-election campaign against Republican Mitt Romney at the time of the attack, initially placed blame on an anti-Islam Internet video, only acknowledging the truth two weeks later.

Questions have also been raised over the speed of the rescue mission and whether Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton did all they could to save their employees.

A special House committee is still conducting an investigation into the attack, and just last week heard closed-door testimony from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The committee was also responsible for exposing Mrs. Clinton’s secret email account — now the subject of an FBI investigation.

While filmmakers have steered clear of the movie’s political implications, there’s no doubt about the film’s target audience. “13 Hours” had its world premiere Tuesday in Dallas, not Los Angeles or New York City, drawing thousands to AT&T Stadium.

Early screenings were provided to National Review and The Weekly Standard, the leading conservative journals, both of which ran reviews Jan. 6.

While the movie is expected to stir patriotic feeling, that doesn’t necessarily translate into political support. For example, former Sen. John Glenn of Ohio came up short in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 even after the release of “The Right Stuff,” said John Pitney, American politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

“The Benghazi incident did not have much impact on public opinion when it happened, and there is no sign that voters have much interest in it — although they ought to,” said Mr. Pitney in an email. “Movies do not usually drive presidential elections.”

At the same time, the film’s impact on the Clinton campaign could be “subtle but profound,” said Mr. Toto.

“It certainly doesn’t do her any favors,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to walk out of here saying, ‘Well, I guess she did the best she could.’”

The movie’s release has also rekindled debate over whether the CIA told commandos to “stand down,” as depicted in the movie. The five who survived the raid insist that a top CIA official gave the order, while the White House, CIA and Democrats have denied it.

Three of the operatives — ex-Marines Kris Paronto, John Tiegen and Mark Geist — making the pre-release media rounds have vouched for the movie’s accuracy. Four men — Smith, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty — died in the attack.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the Select Committee on Benghazi, said Tuesday on Fox News Radio, “Look, if anyone is entitled to tell what happened in Benghazi that night, it would be the heroic men who did what these book authors did, and Ty Woods and Glen Doherty, who lost their lives.”

“There are witnesses who say there was [a stand-down order], there are witnesses who say there was not one,” Mr. Gowdy said Thursday on Boston Herald Radio. “I wasn’t there, and you weren’t there, and your listeners weren’t there. So the best I can do is lay out what the witnesses say, and then you’re going to have to make a determination as to who you believe is more credible.”

The Federalist’s Kyle Sammin gave a shoutout Thursday to Citizens United, the conservative group whose lawsuit in Citizens United v. FEC cleared the way for politically themed movies to be released in election years without running afoul of campaign finance laws.

“I’m proud that Citizens United played a role in enabling ‘13 Hours’ to come to a theater near you,” said Citizens United President David N. Bossie in an email. “It’s an important story that needs to be told.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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