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COM Screens New Benghazi Film 13 Hours

Michael Bay’s thriller based on book by COM’s Zuckoff

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In 2014, Mitchell Zuckoff wrote 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, the true story of the September 11, 2012, Islamic militant attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, one of them the US ambassador to Libya. Hollywood caught wind of it and decided the book could be turned into a great movie.

Released on January 15, 13 Hours—the film of the same name—is directed by Michael Bay, who is best known for blowing things up in movies like Transformers and The Rock. While the film has reignited some debate about how former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration responded to the attack, Zuckoff, the College of Communication’s inaugural Sumner M. Redstone Professor in Narrative Studies, told an audience of students and faculty following a screening Tuesday night that he was largely pleased with how his story was transferred to the big screen. The event, at the AMC Loews Boston Common, was part of COM’s Cinematheque series, which brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.

“The book is called 13 Hours,” Zuckoff said, “but the movie is two hours, so there are things that didn’t make it into the film. Considering it’s a different medium, I think screenwriter Chuck Hogan did a really great job of capturing the story.”

The story behind the story is also interesting. A few months after the Benghazi attack, the five surviving members (a sixth died in the rescue) of the Annex Security Team—former military contractors charged with guarding the compound—reached out to Zuckoff. “They had stuck together and decided they wanted to tell the story, and tell it just once,” he said. “They had hung together, heard all the political stuff about Benghazi, how it had been polluted in many ways in their eyes and turned political, so they decided to come out. At first I hesitated. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write this book, then I met them and talked to them and I realized I couldn’t not write the book. That launched me on an exhausting nine-month journey with them, and here we are.”

In the early stages of writing, Zuckoff wrote a memo to himself that now manifests itself as the book’s “Note to the reader.” In it, he says that he did not set out to write something political—rather, his goal was to tell the story of what happened on the ground in Benghazi. That was something he felt he owed his five coauthors.

For that reason, Zuckoff said, he would have been just as happy if the film had come out three years from now, in a nonelection year, but he had no control over its release date. “I like to think that people will look at it for what it is—as accurate as we could be, a version of the truth, through the guys who fought the battle,” he said. “It was not intended to be a political document. I think people expected a lot of things when they heard there was going to be a Benghazi movie—they imagined there would be a Hillary Clinton character, imagined there would be Washington scenes. But there are not.”

Among the more controversial aspects of the team members’ story was their recollection of how they initially remained at their station, some distance from the embassy, following orders from the CIA commander of the base. Frustrated by the command to stay put, they agreed to disregard their orders, and raced, too late, to protect the compound. They say the time they lost lingering at their station could have meant the difference between life and death for people inside the compound. Last week, the former CIA Benghazi chief, using the pseudonym “Bob,” told the Washington Post that he never told the contractors to stand down. Zuckoff doesn’t buy it.

“He said he neither delayed the guys nor told them to go,” he said. “So you would have to believe that the guys on their own decided to wait, and then on their own decided to go. And that doesn’t make sense, because they knew that Bob was trying to coordinate with 17 February [a local militia providing support to the US compound], who were completely unreliable, and the guys knew that. They weren’t going to sit there and wait while they were hearing those calls and knew the enemy was digging in. They had a collective 100 years of military experience behind them. Every one of them told me, “we were ready to go. We heard him say, ‘Stand down.’”

Zuckoff said he felt sympathy for Bob. “The fact is that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and US Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith died of smoke inhalation. Smoke inhalation is a function of time. If I had prevented someone from going to their aid and they had died, not by a bullet wound, but by time wasted, I also might claim that I did something I didn’t do, or claim that I didn’t do something that I had done. So I think all the evidence and the opposing voices make Bob’s claims not credible.”

The former Boston Globe reporter said that while he was writing the book, he received many calls from a “certain agency” urging him not to reveal classified information. He told the Cinematheque crowd that there was information in an earlier draft of the book that he ultimately removed. “These guys [his coauthors] told me everything,” he said. “Nothing in the book is false; I’m not trying to mislead anyone, but some details, from details like specific weaponry to certain tactics and methods, I had to take out.”

The last questioner of the evening asked Zuckoff about the accuracy of the film’s fight scenes. His answer: they were ratcheted up, but with good reason.

“I came to like Michael Bay a lot, we talked a lot, I spent a lot of time with him,” he said. “What Michael explained to me was that to make the audience feel like the guys felt, he had to multiply it by 20. I’ve never been on the receiving end of mortars or AK fire, so to make you feel that way, he had to torque it up.”

Which is, after all, what Bay is famous for. Zuckoff recalled a night filming on the island of Malta: he was going to leave the set and go to bed, but Bay urged him to stay. “An hour later, there’s a scene where an RPG hits a car, and the car does a 360 flip,” he said. “He was so excited, like a little kid, jumping up and down. Michael likes explosions.”

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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