If we roll with Karl Marx’s famous dictum that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, I guess the third time around it becomes a Michael Bay movie. Which is both things at once! In case you think that the main problem with the psychotronic 2016 presidential campaign, which seems to have slipped the gears of reality and entered an alternate dimension, is that it doesn’t have quite enough Benghazi juice, I have good news. Bay, the idiot-genius god-king of the “Transformers” franchise, the man who has singlehandedly pushed action movies to heretofore unknown levels of bombast and stupidity, has made a Benghazi movie.
Or at any rate he has almost made one. I attended a strange press event in New York on Friday afternoon for Bay’s forthcoming “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” along with a desultory crowd of perhaps two dozen other journalists, most of whom clearly showed up for the free lunch and a little holiday-season chitchat. Paramount Pictures served us the aforementioned lunch, which was delicious, in a barren second-story restaurant apparently made out of paving stones that looks like the “fine dining” establishment in a brand new exurban mall but in fact overlooks 42nd Street. Before the meal, we sat in a deserted multiplex across the street and watched about 25 minutes of footage from Bay’s film, which features many explosions, close-ups of muscular men crying and such snippets of dialogue as “You’re in my world now,” “Shit just got real” and “That’s not good.”
Maybe the dazed and jaded atmosphere of this event was just about the sensory overload of midtown Manhattan in December, or maybe it reflected the general Trumpian mood of fear and delusion in a country that may finally have snapped the last tether of sanity. Consider Friday’s New York Times poll, with its all-time high numbers for Trump and its finding that Americans perceive terrorism as the No. 1 threat to the nation. Even after San Bernardino, terrorist attacks committed by Muslims have killed fewer than 50 people in the United States in the years since 9/11. Meanwhile, 35,000 people commit suicide every year, and close to 100,000 die from mistakes made by medical professionals. Several thousand people die every year by falling off ladders. It is more likely that you or I will die this year by drowning in the bath, being electrocuted by a home appliance or colliding with a deer than that Muslim fanatics will murder us.
Have Americans’ powers of perception become totally distorted? That's a rhetorical question – you don’t need to think about it. Anyway, at Friday’s event three members of the “Annex Security Team” depicted in the film – the ex-military CIA contractors who tried to rescue United States ambassador J. Christopher Stevens after the diplomatic mission in Benghazi was overrun – joined us to eat shrimp-and-onion canapés and infinitesimal grilled cheese sandwiches in the paving-stone restaurant. For whatever reason, only a handful of my press colleagues even pretended to be interested in them.
I asked Mark “Oz” Geist, a former Marine who was injured on the rooftop of the CIA complex in Benghazi, how he felt about the fact that “13 Hours” would inevitably become a talking point of the presidential campaign. “I think it’s as apolitical a story as it could possibly be,” he said. “We’ve tried to keep it focused on the facts of what actually happened that night, and I think it’s going to surprise some people.” What that means in English, I suspect, is that Geist and his colleagues avoid pointing fingers at either Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, because their perspective on the much-mythologized battle of Benghazi is entirely local and specific. Bay’s movie, which was written by Chuck Hogan, is based on the book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi” by Mitchell Zuckoff, which in turn was based on the testimony of Geist and his fellow team members about what they saw and experienced.
What we’re going to see when “13 Hours” reaches theaters next month, or at least what I saw on Friday, is neither apolitical nor surprising. No retelling of the Benghazi story, or any aspect of it, can be either of those things. And just to slide sideways into cinema studies for a second, Bay’s bewildering brand of big-budget, value-free spectacle cinema, seemingly detached from all meaning and all ideology, actually makes him one of the signature political filmmakers of our age. He’s the Leni Riefenstahl of late capitalism. If the Republicans’ endless Benghazi investigation has been driven from the headlines by Paris and San Bernardino and Donald Trump, Benghazi as a symbol and signifier still holds a sanctified place in the right-wing American imagination, standing for everything that is so wrong but might someday be put right.
Benghazi is not the same as Donald Trump, but it nourishes the climate of all-purpose paranoia that has allowed Trump to grow so big so fast, like some especially horrible tropical fungus. Talking to Mark Geist reminded me that even if I think Benghazi barely merits discussion in the history of American foreign-policy disasters or worldwide episodes of chaos and carnage, it is nonetheless something that really happened and can plausibly be linked to Islamic extremism. It is precious to the nationalistic right for those reasons, and because it seems to illustrate several important themes: the ubiquitous hostility of the Arab-Muslim world, the lonely courage of the American soldier (or, in this case, the American private-sector mercenary), and the feminized and corrupt nature of Big Government and its factotums.
While I was talking to Geist, a beady-eyed cable TV person came creeping up on my right and began asking graduate-level Benghazi-ology questions about the road intersection outside the diplomatic compound and the demeanor of the militants who broke through the gate. (Even I know that Geist and the rest of his team were several miles away at the CIA base, and did not see that happen.) This movie might clarify many things about that night in September 2012 that seem mysterious, Basic Cable Man mused aloud; it might finally focus public attention on the underlying issues. I didn’t ask him what he thought those were and I probably don’t want to know. Nor did I point out that no work of fiction is likely to elucidate questions of fact, especially not a Hollywood movie.
I would like to say that Geist looked a little uncomfortable during this encounter, right after telling me how apolitical the movie was and how the annex team had no interest in skewing their story “either to the right or to the left.” I don’t really know why I want to claim some fundamental decency for the guy; he answered my questions courteously, but I don't have any idea what's in his heart. No doubt Benghazi conspiracy buffs like Cable Guy have enabled Geist to earn a living since he got back from Libya, and when you consider that he nearly died on a rooftop thousands of miles from home for reasons no one will ever be able to explain, I don’t think we can begrudge him that.
There’s an easy joke waiting right here about how watching 20 percent of a Michael Bay movie is a lot better than watching the whole thing, ha ha. When it’s a Michael Bay propaganda film about the cowardice and incompetence of the United States government, you might want to double or treble that. (After encountering yet another frustration, the ex-Navy SEAL played by John Krasinski in the movie acerbically observes, “That’s some dot-gov shit right there.”) But please remember that these people fed me tiny little steak pies, and tuna tartare on something that wasn’t quite a tortilla chip and wasn’t quite a Wheat Thin, and broiled red snapper with oven-roasted fennel. I am trying to be polite.
Anyway, that joke is both true and not true. What we saw of “13 Hours” was enough to accelerate the pulse rate and activate the limbic system – Bay is really, really good at those things – without reaching the sick-making amphetamine overdrive of something like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which left me feeling I had spent three hours inside a cement mixer. But it wasn’t enough to make clear which specific version of the Benghazi narrative Bay and Hogan are spinning here – other than, y’know, a story of red-blooded American heroes facing a scary world that hates us for our freedom, while being impeded by pantywaist bureaucrats.
That may be as far as it goes, honestly. David Costabile, one of those character actors you’ve seen in dozens of TV shows, plays the CIA base chief in Benghazi, a guy known only as “Bob” who plays a notorious role in several of the narratives about what went wrong there in September of 2012. Even in a 25-minute series of clips, we saw an awful lot of Bob, throwing hissy fits and slamming his office door and referring to the annex team as the “hired help” and repeatedly telling them to “stand down,” even as panicky radio reports from the diplomatic compound make clear that militants have stormed the place with the ambassador trapped inside. (Stevens and his security aide ultimately died of smoke inhalation after militants torched the diplomatic residence.)
Bob is partly the nebbishy dad from a family sitcom and partly the pompous high-school science teacher with bad sweaters who is tormented by the cool kids. He is the voice of rules and regulations and small-minded authority, attempting to crush the manly force of American manliness, which of course in the end he cannot do. In that sense “13 Hours,” like every movie Michael Bay has ever made, is a comic revenge fantasy aimed at teenage males (and for the post-teenage right-wing males for whom Benghazi has assumed the iconic significance of the JFK assassination). Bob finally gets his comeuppance in a scene meant to provoke explosive audience delight, when one of the team members tells him, “You’re not giving orders now. You’re taking them.” If Bay and Hogan cannot directly implicate Obama or Hillary Clinton, Bob serves as their henpecked stand-in, and is more effeminate and less effective than either.
During my conversation with Mark Geist, he was joined by John “Tig” Tiegen, another former Marine who Geist says saved his life in Benghazi. “Worst thing he ever did for me,” Geist says. “Now I have to wash his truck all the time." Tiegen, who doesn’t talk much, chimes in: “Every Sunday.” You can tell they’ve been doing this for a while.
Both guys laugh cheerfully when I invite them to discuss Donald Trump’s plan to bar Muslims from entering the country. They’re ready for that one: They’re not here to talk politics! Of course it's really easy to get them to talk politics. They are a couple of American guys in the year 2015, which means that for all their years of military experience and their Benghazi heroics (Geist has also been a county sheriff and police chief in Colorado), they appear to believe multiple contradictory things at once.
Both Geist and Tiegen spent considerable time in Libya and other Arab countries, and both say they have no problem with Islam. “I mean, 99 percent of everybody in Libya was Muslim,” says Geist, “and for the most part they were just regular folks who went to work and lived their lives and tried to raise their kids.” A large majority of Libyans were friendly, Tiegen adds, and the country’s internal conflicts had little to do with religion. During the period after the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gadhafi, he adds, “If people saw [an American] on the street they’d come over, shake your hand and buy you a coffee. Unfortunately there was also that element that wanted power and was willing to use violence, but you could find that anywhere.”
After Geist leaves the table, Tiegen turns reflective and his mood darkens. He hasn’t actually seen Bay’s movie, he tells me, and probably won’t until his twin children are old enough to watch it with him. “Maybe when they’re 10 or so?” he muses. No doubt I look appalled; I have twins too, and the only way they are ever seeing this movie is in the re-education camps of the Trump dictatorship. I do not say that. “It’s reality, you can’t hide from it,” Tiegen says. “We might have 10 more terrorist attacks, or a hundred, here in the homeland by that time.” I stop myself from saying that is not a logical assumption, since we have had very few so far. Instead I ask what he thinks we have to do to prevent that.
“It would help if we were willing to stop calling a duck a chicken,” the Benghazi secret soldier says stoutly. “When it's duck season and you go out huntin', you’re not gonna get any if they're all chickens." I laugh at that and tell him it’s a good line, but it isn’t. It’s a line he has practiced in media training seminars, one that is meant to push a certain button with a certain audience but doesn’t really mean anything. The crowd in the paving-stone restaurant, which was not much of a crowd to begin with, is dwindling fast. So I thank Tiegen and shake his hand and walk out onto 42nd Street, feeling sad about the whole thing.