Audiences reject "13 Hours": Big blow for the right's desperate quest for Clinton's Benghazi smoking gun — it's just not there

The film is basically a flop — and a letdown for conservatives hoping it would somehow take down Hillary Clinton

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 19, 2016 11:08PM (EST)

  (Paramount Pictures)
(Paramount Pictures)

The new Michael Bay movie, "13 Hours," was regarded in right-wing circles as this big, election-changing event that would help crush Hillary Clinton. The movie, which follows the mercenary team that went to rescue Americans caught up in a confusing attack on U.S. ambassadors to Libya in 2012, was pumped up in right wing media for months and released with great fanfare to red state audiences, including a showing at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, to a crowd packed with anti-Clinton fanatics.

And yet the movie is basically a flop, bringing in only $19 million over the three-day holiday weekend. This is especially disappointing for those who were rooting for this film, because January is, for whatever reason, a good month for movies that pander to military worship and pro-war "patriotism," with previous years seeing movies like "American Sniper" and "Lone Survivor" cleaning up with these crowds. But this movie, which has the hook of the word "Benghazi" — which Fox News viewers are supposed to recite 100 times a day like a rosary — just isn't taking off. What gives?

Part of the problem might just be the movie itself. Perhaps if the movie was called "Hillary Clinton Is A Castrating Feminazi Who Reminds You Of Your Ex-Wife," it would have done a better job pulling in the target audience. But as it stands, the movie is just a rundown of the events that happened that day in Benghazi, and not some expose on how the administration dealt with it or anything like that.

This matters, because the last thing conservatives actually care about it what happened that day in Benghazi. For one thing, the actual victims of the attacks are held in barely disguised contempt on the right. The very existence of ambassadors, especially those working under a Democratic administration, runs counter to the current Republican attitude on foreign policy.

Right now, Republicans are throwing a hissy fit because President Obama got some captured soldiers in Iran home quickly and safely, suggesting that they would have much preferred if he used the capture as a pretext to war with Iran. So while it's standard operating procedure on the right to shed crocodile tears over the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, enduring an entire movie where you're supposed to care about people whose job is to make peace instead of war might be more than red state audiences can handle.

More importantly, there's no reason to believe conservatives want clarity about Benghazi. I haven't seen the movie, to be clear, but it's clearly marketed as the movie that will lay out, in clear narrative detail, the events behind one of the favorite red button words of the right.

But the power of "Benghazi" is in the mystery of it. As far as conspiracy theories go, this one is maddeningly vague. As Gawker's Christopher Hooks discovered when he went to the premiere event at Cowboys stadium, the true believers on hand could not — and frankly didn't seem to want to — explain what, exactly, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did wrong. Vague accusations were thrown out, but when Hooks corrected the facts, audience members shrugged it off. Knowing anything about Benghazi is not the point of "Benghazi."

The facts don't matter and the actual content of the accusations matters even less. What matters is the word "Benghazi": Getting it out there, saying it a lot, tying to vague notions of Democratic "weakness" or "corruption", but evading discussion of the particulars. The less attached "Benghazi" is to the actual events that day or the actual choices the administration made, the better. Knowing more means realizing the entire controversy is built on sand, and so clinging to ignorance is the best way to preserve the illusion that this is somehow a major political problem for Clinton.

When you actually start trying to figure out what, exactly, the complaints about the administration's handling of this are, it ends up backfiring on the right. Hillary Clinton's lengthy testimony in front of the Benghazi committee in October proved that. When exposed to the actual tidbits the conspiracy theorists chew on — that she was more candid about what she thought this might be to her intimates than she was to the public, that the administration wanted to be sure of what was going on before committing to a public narrative — it becomes immediately clear that they have nothing. As with the Iran prisoner exchange, the Obama administration's unwillingness to rush to judgment should be regarded as a strength, not a weakness.

Perhaps this is why, as many critics note, the movie focuses strictly on the events of that day. (That, and Bay is an action film director, not an Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theorist director.) To even touch on the "controversy" around Benghazi is to strip it of the mystique it needs to keep going. Believing requires not looking too closely. But Bay's strategy, to focus on the attacks themselves, isn't very satisfying to conservatives, either, since there's no clear line between "this happened" and "Hillary Clinton sucks" to be drawn there.

Obviously, some right wingers are so deep into the "Benghazi" muck that they went to see "13 Hours" anyway, so intent on keeping the word "Benghazi" in the political discourse that they don't care much, one way or another, if the movie is actually good or actually even supports their conspiracy theories. And obviously, Fox News is hustling as hard as they can to get people to go see it.

But maybe they shouldn't want that. As embarrassing as it is to see "13 Hours" flop at the box office, worse would be to invite people to actually sit and think, even for a couple of hours, about what actually happened in Libya in 2012. The key to being a believer in this conspiracy theory is not knowing any of the real life details, even the kind that might slip into your brain accidentally by watching an action film about it, even one that fudges the details. Right-wing audiences get this and so are staying as far away as they can. When it comes to "Benghazi," they realize, ignorance is their greatest strength.

13 Hours Author Stands By Benghazi Film

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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13 Hours Aol_on Benghazi Fox News Hillary Clinton Red State Audiences