It’s an incredible story to try and capture on the big screen. Six men, with very little support, who go against the odds in a foreign country that is in a near post-apocalyptic state. It’s director Michael Bay’s latest movie – 13 Hours, based on the New York Times bestselling book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi and his first crack at portraying a real life event. The film unavoidably puts certain politicians in an uncomfortable spot in the run up to a very important election, and it’s unfairly reflected in the criticisms of this movie.
Not intentionally of course. No, Bay doesn’t focus on the congressional hearings, Sunday morning talk show appearances, or accounts from family members of the fallen. He trades in the macro view that is bloated with politics for the micro, focusing on the human story on the ground. He wants you to know these men and their heroism on the ground, and not be distracted by legislative minutia and campaign talking points. If the movie delves into a political gray area at all, it’s because the viewer can’t help but ask questions about why these men were in the situation they found themselves, as well as how the situation was handled at the highest levels of government less than two months away from a major election. Those are inconvenient questions for a lot of people, and force many to take a second look at an event previously branded as an extreme right-wing conspiracy theory.
Hollywood in particular and the entertainment industry, in general, have a love affair with creative license and little regard for facts as they happened when it comes to producing anything based on true stories or events. Critics weren’t nearly so hard on films like The Hurt Locker, despite it being inaccurate in nearly every way for how it portrayed the war in Iraq and those who fought there. It still went on to be nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning six of them.
There sometimes are good reasons for altering time lines and narratives in movies though. It can be that what actually happened doesn’t make for good entertainment, or that the full scope of events can’t be nicely packaged into a three act story fit for two or three hours on the big screen. Sometimes, it is the filmmaker who has an agenda and is crafting the story to fit it. In Hollywood, for better or worse, that agenda is typically left leaning politically and benefits left-leaning politicians more than those on the right. That’s fine, and after all – we do value free speech in this country. Although there are always two sides to every story, the entertainment industry is not exactly balanced when it comes to politics, and ‘what really happened’ is often only an afterthought.
What is curious, is that when a movie is produced that doesn’t fit a left-leaning narrative, especially in an important election year, facts and ‘how it really happened’ all of a sudden become of paramount importance to the industry and the press that covers it. Peter Travers recently gave the movie a one-star review in The Rolling Stone, “and Bay, whose name on a movie should serve as a leper’s bell to all those who think they’re getting the “true” story, keeps jacking up the shootouts, firebombs, vehicle chases and a bus explosion that you won’t find in Zuckoff’s book.” Other critics, such as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, pull no punches and fall just short of calling the security contractors who were there liars. According to Beauchamp, committees lead by politicians who weren’t there that night are more trustworthy.
How accurate was the movie? Are the critics being unfair? Did every single explosion portrayed in the movie happen exactly the same way in real life? I reached out to fellow Army Ranger Kris Paronto, who was on the ground that night and portrayed in the movie by actor Pablo Schreiber. He said, “Tig [John Tiegen] was told to stand down, not ‘Rone [Tyrone Woods], that was the only change in the movie. Maybe some of the explosions happened differently, but the movie was not inaccurate in that there were a lot of explosions.”
According to Paronto, the whole production went to great lengths to include the actual operators on the ground in the movie-making process, as well as making the final product as accurate as possible. “We went to Santa Monica and read the first draft [of the script]. We had to make changes; they originally wanted to have Jack [Silva] save everyone on the rooftop. That didn’t happen, so it was changed immediately. We were involved in set design too… Tig changed a lot. There was a wall in one of the buildings that was off, and Tig brought it up to Bay. Michael responded that it would cost him a hundred thousand dollars to change the wall. We all just stared at him… the wall got changed. They got everything right, though. Maybe there was a tree that was a little off outside of the annex compound, but that was it.” Even the actors went out of their way to portray their real-life counterparts fairly and accurately, “We worked a lot with the actors too, Pablo [Schreiber] even learned the Ranger Creed and started dipping,” said Paronto.
It seems that critics can’t quite acknowledge that Bay, the same guy who has made his name on big explosions and unrealistic, yet entertaining plot lines, is capable of making something that actually is… very accurate. Paronto said, “Michael had us very involved during the filming of the movie. He had us over his shoulder a lot of the time, asking us how we thought things looked. He genuinely wanted to get it right.”
Paronto and the other security contractors were not the only ones present that night in Benghazi. Recently. The Washington Post published a story featuring an interview with the CIA Chief of Base, portrayed pseudonymously as “Bob” in the movie. The now retired former CIA employee, who still remains nameless, insists that no stand down order was ever given. It has created a media firestorm of ‘he said, she said’ that, again, distracts from the message of the movie. I asked Paronto about how “Bob” was portrayed, and how he feels about his recent comments in the Post. “We could have been a lot harder on him (Bob). He gave us a total of two ‘waits’, and a ‘stand down’. We gave him a chance to explain why he said to stand down, maybe there actually was a good reason, but he didn’t want to talk to us. I mean, there is a video feed of us in the compound that night. You can see us getting in and out of cars for twenty-five minutes. It is obvious that we tried to leave multiple times, and that there was a lot of verbal back and forth between him and us. We were exceedingly fair to him in the movie.”
It all comes down to the fact that this is an A-political movie that just so happens to be very inconvenient in both content and the timing of its release. Although the movie is at odds with the congressional investigations, one must ask themselves who they trust more – the former special operators-turned-contractors on the ground, or the testimony of bureaucrats that were thousands of miles away that night. I know whom I believe.
Honestly, I hope that Hollywood does push for more realistic and honest portrayals of actual events. Real life is almost always more exciting, and more dramatic than our own imagination. When it comes to 13 Hours, this isn’t the shining example of an inaccurate movie. Critics and the entertainment industry at large need to ask themselves if they would be as hard on this movie if it were asking inconvenient questions directed at the other side of the aisle? Bay, however much you liked or disliked his previous work, did what a good filmmaker should do: He didn’t tell you what to think; he showed you what happened according to those who were there, encouraging the audience to ask hard questions and seek out the truth themselves.
Marty Skovlund, Jr. is a former Army Ranger, an award-winning independent film producer, and the author of “Violence of Action: The Untold Stories of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the War on Terror.”