What does Michael Bay’s action thriller get right and wrong about the Benghazi attack?
The bulk of director Michael Bay‘s filmography might be the Transformers franchise, but in 2016, he made an impressive and overlooked war film with John Krasinski.
13 Hours is a stylish and action-packed depiction of the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack. The facts behind the incident quickly became obscured by partisan activists looking to score points against their political foes.
But now that time has passed and the dust has settled, how exactly does the film measure up to reality? The film is based on a nonfiction book by journalist Mitchell Zuckoff and does generally correspond fairly well with the known facts.
But there are two especially contentious issues in the film on which various sources and participants disagree; namely, the alleged “stand down” order from the CIA Chief in Benghazi, and the purported decision from military brass to deny air support.
As we explore the veracity of these scenes, we’ll see why there is still profound disagreement over the truth of the attack between those on the ground and those in charge.
Release Date: January 14, 2016
Director: Michael Bay
Cast: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini
Genres: Drama, Action, Documentary, History, Thriller, War
Does ’13 Hours’ Show What Really Happened in Benghazi?
On September 11, 2012, Ansar al-Sharia militants attacked a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed during the attack when the militants set fire to the compound. Nearby, a group of private military contractors called Global Response Staff (GRS) rushed to a CIA Annex to help prepare a response to the attack.
At this point, there is considerable debate as to whether or not the CIA Chief stationed in Benghazi issued a formal “stand down” order. But regardless of precisely what was said, eventually, GRS attempted to rescue anyone still trapped inside the diplomatic compound.
When they arrived at the compound, they searched for Ambassador Stevens but were unable to find him amongst all the smoke. After attempting to gather up any survivors and bodies, GRS headed back to the CIA Annex. While en route, their vehicle was attacked by militants. They managed to make it back inside the Annex without any additional casualties.
Around midnight, an assault was launched on the CIA Annex by the militants. GRS fought off the attackers all night until some backup arrived early the next morning. When the help arrived, the Annex again came under heavy fire.
It was during this attack that Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were both killed by mortar rounds. The Annex was then evacuated and everyone inside was safely transported to the airport. While GRS was defending the CIA Annex, Ambassador Stevens was discovered, still alive, by a group of Libyans who brought him to a local hospital. Despite being administered CPR, Stevens eventually died at the hospital of smoke inhalation.
What Was the Controversy Over the Benghazi Stand-Down Order?
Whether or not the unnamed CIA Chief in Benghazi ordered GRS to “stand down” when they attempted to rescue any survivors from the diplomatic compound is a matter of some controversy. Journalist Mitchell Zuckoff’s book supports the claim that a stand-down order was issued.
Michael Bay’s film also depicts the CIA Chief issuing a clear stand-down order. The five surviving members of the six-man GRS team have all asserted that a stand-down order was issued. Kris Paronto, who was part of the CIA Annex security team, told Politico that “there is no sensationalism in that: We were told to ‘stand down.’ Those words were used verbatim — 100 percent.”
Despite this, a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee stated that there was “no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the Chief of Base or any other party.”
Former CIA Director David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper all agree that no one was ordered to stand down. The identity of the CIA Chief in Benghazi is not known but a CIA memo states that this Chief authorized the GRS rescue operation and did not tell them to stand down.
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that a stand-down order would’ve been issued from the upper ranks of the U.S. military or State Department. If that was the case, there is no clear evidence of it. However, it is still uncertain to this day precisely what the CIA Chief said or whether the words “stand down” were used.
Michael Bay chose to believe the Americans who defended the CIA Annex. Others have tended to see this belief as conspiratorial. While there certainly is at least some evidence, in the form of eyewitness testimony, that a stand-down order was issued, it’s also plausible that the conversation between military personnel and the CIA Chief resulted in a simple misunderstanding.
What Critical Air Support Was Denied in Benghazi?
According to 13 Hours, critical air support was denied to those defending the CIA Annex in Benghazi. A CIA officer is seen calling for air support and the film leads its audience to believe that a U.S. military plane was ready and waiting nearby in Italy.
The film also implies that had air support been provided, Glen Doherty’s and Tyrone Woods’s deaths could’ve been prevented. Unlike claims of a stand-down order, the presence and readiness of U.S. military planes near Libya is less a matter of opinion and more a matter of fact. According to the available evidence, it seems as if no air support was possible.
As Vox reported, a House Armed Services report concluded that “the Department of Defense had no armed drones or manned aircraft prepared for combat readily available and nearby on September 11 [when the attack occurred].”
The U.S. military planes in Italy were used exclusively for training flights and were not prepared for combat missions. According to the report, the closest armed combat plane at the time was in Djibouti, which is too far away for a plane to have made it to Benghazi in time to provide air support. Thus, the film’s depiction of military incompetence resulting in the denial of critical air support seems sensationalist, if not just factually incorrect.
Despite these two highly contentious issues, 13 Hours is otherwise a relatively accurate film. Michael Bay deliberately chose to believe the military personnel who defended the CIA Annex in Benghazi over subsequent investigations and reports.
This perspective does lend itself to right-wing narratives about the alleged weakness and ineptness of the Democratic administration at the time. But it’s also consistent with Bay’s tendency to portray events through the eyes of blue-collar men on the ground experiencing the events in real-time, such as in Pearl Harbor or Armageddon. With 13 Hours, Bay decided to wade into controversial waters and the controversies persist to this day.