The film “13 Hours” premiered last week to high expectations. It highlights the events in Libya which led up to the infamous Benghazi catastrophe — and was thought to have the ability to influence the elections, as the mere mention of “Benghazi” is synonymous with Hillary Clinton’s failure as Secretary of State. The reality, however, is that thus far “13 Hours” has underperformed in box offices, pulling in only $19 million over the weekend.
Even before its theatrical release, “13 Hours” generated a great deal of buzz. Fox News strongly encouraged its viewers to see it, Donald Trump rented out an Iowa movie theater and provided free tickets, and the AT&T Stadium — home of the Dallas Cowboys — offered a showing to its overly conservative fan base. It was directed by one of America’s most successful film directors, Michael Bay (a Pentagon favorite), and premiered during a three-day holiday weekend.
So what – or whom — is to blame for the movie’s poor box office showing?
Could Republican presidential candidates be to blame? With election season in full swing and tensions running high between the Democratic and Republican parties, this presidential slew of right-wing candidates have already offered the media enough juicy stories to last through the general election. Stories on Donald Trump alone have felled vast swaths of Canadian trees and burned countless hours on cable news channels.
The film chronicles the events in Libya during that fateful day, yet it shies away from exploring what happened behind the diplomatic scenes to cause the tragedy. Perhaps viewers are disappointed that “13 Hours” did not forthrightly attack either Hillary Clinton or the Obama Administration.
The movie features a straightforward, action-oriented plot rather than a narrative of complex and well-hidden war crimes that some Republicans accuse Clinton and her team of perpetrating. Hence, with little in the way of analysis or finger-pointing, the film does not offer much to fuel the fire of potential rage toward Hillary Clinton, and that may be why the movie has fizzled so quickly.
Nevertheless, movies that traffic in similar themes, such as “Zero Dark Thirty,” “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor,” have been praised by right-wing politicians.
For example, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) raved about “American Sniper” when it was released in January, noting, “This film depicts with subtlety and compassion those brave few who serve our nation in uniform, their experiences in the horror of war, the burdens they often bear upon returning home and the untold sacrifices of their families.”
McCain said in a statement, “It is deeply regrettable that obsessive critics of U.S. foreign policy have sought to disparage this film and denigrate the memory of a noble American warrior.” He added, “Fortunately, their pettiness has not stopped millions of Americans from seeing ‘American Sniper’ and, hopefully, in the process gaining a greater appreciation for the service and sacrifice of America’s military service members and their families.”
Against that backdrop, it’s possible there is more to the flop of “13 Hours” than the film itself. Although those other movies were all released within the last few years, much has changed in the political climate recently. Finding and killing Bin Laden, whether you are a Republican or Democrat, supported the war in Iraq or not, was a victory and relief to the vast majority of Americans. The take of Chris Kyle was a story of how war affects a person, his family, and his humanity; making it compelling.
The Benghazi story, however, is still being debated in media and in Congress, and it has become more of a political trigger than a human interest piece – making it polarizing; not universal. Republicans rejected it because it did not blame Hillary or President Obama, and Democrats probably felt it would only serve as a campaign rally for the right, and stayed away as well.
As the two major parties sort out their image and message strategy, movies that are expected to appeal to political loyalties may have to shift their focus likewise.
What that will look like is anyone’s guess, but if “13 Hours” is any indication, the days of box office success for “historical” hot-button issue action films may be numbered.