When the Central Intelligence Agency met with party-boy, explosion-obsessed Hollywood filmmaker Michael Bay this year, the agency said it was on a matter of national security.
In January, Paramount Pictures is releasing Bay’s new film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, an action flick dramatizing the story of six security-team members who defended the U.S. compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, at the time of the 2012 attack.
Bay is, of course, famous for helming rowdy, big-budget fare such as Bad Boys II and The Rock, and movies starring beautiful women and loud killer-robots. (For his Transformers franchise, Bay worked closely with the Pentagon to secure access to warships, helicopters, F-22 stealth fighters, and many more military assets.)
The Benghazi attack, which claimed the lives of four Americans, has become one of the more bitterly divisive and partisan issues of the Obama era, spawning multiple congressional investigations and various un-killable talking points for conservative media.
Bay has promised that there is no political agenda whatsoever driving 13 Hours. “I show both sides of the story,” he said at a French film festival. “I met with the CIA on this movie and I show the whole situation.”
In interviews with The Daily Beast, CIA spokespeople admitted that its representatives met with the 50-year-old director—but they claim that it wasn’t to spin the movie in their favor or grant Bay the kind of access afforded to, for instance, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow for 2012 Oscar-bait Zero Dark Thirty. (That movie—which dramatized the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden—was made with the help of the CIA and its press office, and is front-loaded with falsehoods that push the debunked narrative that torture somehow, in some way, helped track down bin Laden. Boal and Bigelow fêted CIA officers with gifts such as tequila and pearls as they were offered unprecedented access to information on the mission.)
The agency has a long history of attempting to gain influence in Hollywood and independent American media, and in 1996 opened its very own Entertainment Liaison Office, which advises high-profile filmmakers and projects. So if you’re watching a flashy Hollywood thriller starring, say, a young, exceptionally handsome Colin Farrell as a well-groomed CIA badass, you can safely assume that the agency consulted on it in the service of image control.
But this time, the CIA says it initially just wanted to check that the new Michael Bay Benghazi movie wouldn’t jeopardize national security, or compromise their officers and agents working abroad.
“When Michael Bay reached out to CIA regarding his 13 Hours film, we agreed to meet him for the purpose of protecting against the potential release of classified information,” CIA spokesperson Kali Caldwell told The Daily Beast. “As with other Hollywood projects and in line with agency regulations, CIA does not endorse this film or any other film.”
This is the first time the CIA has commented on the upcoming movie. Intelligence officials apparently had particular concerns that certain information in the Mitchell Zuckoff nonfiction book, on which Bay’s film is based, would end up in the final cut of the movie. This would allegedly jeopardize the security and safety of intelligence agency personnel serving in the field, in part because a major Hollywood production could widely disseminate protocol and procedures that the CIA uses to protect its staff in foreign locations, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.
The CIA and other intelligence agencies routinely review books and articles written by current and former employees to ensure they don’t contain classified information. But the agencies have no such editorial control over a film produced by a Hollywood studio.
It is unclear which parts of Zuckoff’s book that the agency found most problematic. Of course, any “classified” information that the CIA would be worried about having leaked has already been publicly available in bookstores and libraries all around the world for over a year now. This would mean that all any jihadist trying to harm CIA agents overseas would have to do is buy a copy on Amazon.
However, Zuckoff’s 300-page book—which was co-written by the annex security contractors glorified in Bay’s adaptation—describes a CIA base chief issuing a direct “stand down” order multiple times to the security team, as the contractors waited less than a mile away from the diplomatic compound. The contractors recounted that they ultimately decided to sprint toward the compound without the greenlight from the base chief, referred to as “Bob” in the book. (This is a narrative that the CIA has repeatedly and publicly disputed as “simply inaccurate.”)
And in the most recent U.S. trailer for the film, a character, called “The Chief” in credits, played by actor David Costabile, does indeed exclaim, “STAND DOWN!” to a frustrated team of American heroes:
Via a Paramount publicist, Bay declined to comment for this story. But a source close to the director insisted that “Michael wasn’t out to get the CIA with this movie… He [met with the CIA] to fact-check, and get the agency’s perspective, basically. There were questions about protocol, what happened on that night.
“Like he’s said, he shows both sides of the story, the movie deals with the ‘stand down’ order,” the source told The Daily Beast. “You’re just going to have to wait to see the movie to see how for yourself.”
When asked if agency personnel told Bay which specific parts of the book—whether “stand down” or otherwise—the CIA was worried about appearing in the film or supposedly “jeopardizing national security,” the source simply said, “I cannot speak to that.”
The CIA might not be thrilled with 13 Hours, but they are hardly the only ones who have expressed concerns about it. The unreleased film has already pissed off Hillary Clinton loyalists, Libyan officials, and people living in Benghazi.
“Republicans have already made clear they will use this movie to revive theories discredited by their own party’s investigators to continue their admittedly partisan attacks against Hillary Clinton,” David Brock, founder of the pro-Hillary rapid-response team Correct the Record, told The New York Times.
More recently, Libyan government officials and Benghazi residents charged that the movie portrays Libyans as “fanatical and ignorant.” Omar Gawaari, the Libyan Culture and Information Minister, even complained that the trailer, and thus movie, depicts the American contractors, “who actually failed to secure the ambassador… as heroes,” according to the Associated Press.
“[Michael Bay] turned America’s failure to protect its own citizens in a fragile state into a typical action movie all about American heroism,” Gawaari continued.
As for Bay’s politics, that’s a bit harder to nail down.
“Yes, I am a political person, and I have my views about America,” Bay told me in 2013. “I’m very proud of my country; obviously it’s going through a lot of turmoil, and we have a very ineffectual government… It doesn’t matter at all [whether I’m liberal or conservative]—it’s not a part of what I do. I don’t feel the need to go out and tell people what to believe politically.”
Bay filmography does, however, have something of a conservative streak to it. In Armageddon, a NASA-recruited team of oil drillers, featuring Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis, agrees to save Earth from a killer asteroid—on the condition that they never have to pay taxes ever again. In Bad Boys II, the cop protagonists played by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence illegally invade communist Cuba while waging the War on Drugs. The finale car chase concludes in front of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where the bloodthirsty drug-lord villain gets blown to smithereens.
Perhaps more tellingly, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen can be interpreted as a harsh critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. In the film, President Obama orders the U.S. armed forces to try diplomacy with the evil Decepticons, and to cease cooperation with the good-guy Autobots. The White House also spinelessly decides to hand Sam Witwicky (the main human character played by Shia LaBeouf) over to the Decepticons.
Fortunately, courageous, good-looking members of the U.S. military disobey their orders (in what amounts to a mutiny), and save the day from Obama’s naïve appeasement. Bay was inspired to put Obama in the movie as a character after bumping into him—back when he was a 2008 presidential candidate—at a Las Vegas airport. Bay said a couple of pleasant things to the future president, and Obama reportedly called Bay a “big-ass director.”
So will 13 Hours be as rough on Hillary as Revenge of the Fallen was on Obama? Audiences will find out come January 2016, just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses.