What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Benghazi’

“13 Hours,” Michael Bay’s new film takes on a political landmine

words by Andrew Leask, photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures

On the night of September 11, 2012, dozens of armed men stormed the front gate of the American Special Mission Compound in Benghazi, Libya. Caught off guard and outnumbered, the diplomatic outpost’s security staff—comprised that night of a handful of unarmed guards, a few members of an ostensibly friendly Libyan militia group, and five Diplomatic Security agents— were unable to repel the surprise attack. As militants ransacked the compound, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and a communications officer, Sean Smith, took refuge in the compound’s main villa. Unable to reach the people inside, the attackers set fire to the building.

Less than a mile away, in a secret CIA base known as the Annex, a team of contract security operators responded to the distress calls from the State Department compound. By the time the Special Mission Compound and the CIA Annex were evacuated the next morning, four Americans—including Ambassador Stevens and one member of the Annex security team—had lost their lives.

13 hours 2On January 15, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” directed by Michael Bay, opens nationwide. The film, based on a best-selling book by journalist Mitchell Zuckoff and the Annex security team, recounts the events of that night.

Last month, I met three of the five surviving members of the team — Mark “Oz” Geist, John “Tig” Tiegen and Kris “Tanto” Paronto — were in Cleveland to promote the film. All three men were heavily involved in the making of the film, from suggesting script revisions to helping the actors who play them onscreen research their roles.

“There is no fog of war in combat,” says Paronto. “You remember pretty much everything that happens.”

However, more than three years after the attack, and thanks to multiple government investigations and countless hours of discussion on cable news networks, “Benghazi” has morphed into a sort of simulacrum of a political scandal. The name of the North African city comes up often in political conversations—especially in discussions of the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time of the attack—yet few Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, know much about what happened on the night in question.

“That was the problem with the media,” says Paronto. “The media—right and left—was not putting the entire truth out there. They were putting what bits they wanted people to hear, the sound bites.” He adds, “That’s why we did [the book], and that’s why we have done and are supporting ‘13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.’ Because that’s the truth.”

13 hours 8The timing of the film’s release, less than three weeks before the start of the presidential primary season, is, of course, no coincidence. Already, the film is generating buzz in the political media, with much of the response divided along partisan lines. Yet ironically, if it hews closely to the book, the film is unlikely to touch on the most enduring political controversies to arise from the Benghazi attack. The Annex security team cannot offer insight into Hillary Clinton or her emails, nor was it privy to deliberations within the Obama administration as to how to characterize the motivations behind the attack during its aftermath.

Nevertheless, the film will touch on at least one controversy. According to the surviving members of the Annex security team, they began their rescue mission in violation of orders from the CIA base chief to stand down. This moment, as well as the stand down order, features prominently in the film’s trailer. Yet the U.S. government contends that no stand down order was ever given.

But the the Annex security team is not looking to stir up controversy, even if it is unavoidable. War is not political, they say. Not once the bullets start flying. What matters most to them is that the film honors the four Americans that died in the attack, as well as the service of the men and women that protect America’s diplomatic facilities.

“There’s roughly 300 diplomatic facilities around the world,” says Geist, who was wounded in the attack. “And there’s people serving in every one of those that are putting their lives on hold.”

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So does the film give an accurate, unbiased depiction of the events of September 11, 2012? Can it start to bridge the gap between the public’s high awareness of “Benghazi” as a political idiom and its low understanding of the historical facts of what happened there?

Though the filmmakers have altered certain events in order to adapt the book for the screen, Geist, Paronto, and Tiegen insist that the movie captures the essential truth. What political conclusions viewers draw from the film is not important to them.

“If you still have your views, and I still have my views, and they’re different, that’s fine, because we’re both well-informed,” says Paronto. “It’s not a FOX truth. It’s not an MSNBC truth. It’s the guys on the ground truth.”
Andrew Leask writes fiction in the company of his wife, Amy, and their two cats, Monty and Nigella.