Conservatives can’t hide their hope that 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the movie released this past weekend about the 2012 attack, helps them defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. But we’ve seen this movie before. And Republicans aren’t going to be too happy with the ending. Almost from the first talkie, Hollywood directors have thought they could use their moviemaking skills to influence voters. And almost without exception, they have been disappointed.
Director Michael Bay, famed for his action movies like the Transformers series, is giving it a shot with 13 Hours. The movie premiered with a heavy boost from the Right. At both last week’s undercard Republican debate and the main event, candidates urged viewers to go to the movie. In addition to those endorsements from Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, House Republicans made time at their retreat in Baltimore to take in the movie, and candidate Donald Trump commandeered a theater in Iowa to let Iowans “know the truth about what happened at Benghazi,” according to his Iowa cochair.
The studio knew its potential audience and targeted conservatives in its initial marketing campaign, according to The Hollywood Reporter, because “they know what they have: a movie that will appeal to red states far more than blue ones.” The first weekend’s numbers backed that up: Paramount reported that 41 percent of the film’s grosses came from the South, a higher-than-normal percentage. Overall, the opening weekend’s numbers were solid, but slightly under what was expected. Its estimated four-day gross of $19.6 million was one of Bay’s weakest openings but good enough for fourth place behind Ride Along 2, The Revenant, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
America Rising, the anti-Clinton group, cohosted a Washington screening last Friday, claiming that 13 Hours is “the movie Hillary Clinton doesn’t want you to see.” Fox News commentator Andrea Tantaros on Sunday stated, “If anyone sees this movie—which everyone should go see it—and then goes on to vote for Hillary Clinton, they’re a criminal.” Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Glenn Beck, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus promoted the movie with tweets. “SEE IT, then SEE IT again,” tweeted former Rep. Michele Bachmann. Roger Stone, a sometime adviser to Trump, tweeted a question: “Will@13hours film end @HillaryClinton’s presidential bid?”
The answer, based on the history of movies and politics, is an almost-certain “no.” Stone’s question has been asked before about different movies and different candidates. There was the famous Newsweek cover story of Oct. 3, 1983, with the headline: “Can a Movie Help Make a President?” It coincided with the release of the space movie The Right Stuff and the presidential candidacy of former astronaut and senator John Glenn, played in the movie by actor Ed Harris.
A top Newsweek editor later called the cover “pretty silly,” noting that “within months the candidate in question, John Glenn, withdrew from the race.” But the question was not silly at the time to the Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Walter Mondale. His campaign team was quite nervous when the movie premiered, with its vivid reminder of Glenn’s all-American appeal, decency, and heroism.
The Chicago Tribune’s Jon Margolis was one of the few to point out that the debate over The Right Stuff was much ado about relatively little. He noted that 20 million people would see the movie before the key primary contests. “But,” he said, “movie demographics being what they are, almost half of them will be too young to vote (at least in primaries) and others will be in states which choose their delegates much later.” Those demographics aren’t much different today—particularly for a movie made by Michael Bay, who once proudly boasted, “I make movies for teenage boys.”
The inability of The Right Stuff to make a dent in the electorate did not deter later producers from trying to influence elections. None were more brazen than liberal provocateur Michael Moore. His effort to torpedo President George W. Bush’s reelection premiered in the summer of 2004. It was Fahrenheit 9/11, a biting takedown of Bush’s war in Iraq and his conduct of the presidency—even savaging his response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At the time, Moore boasted that his movie could have a strong influence on the November election. “This may be the first time a film has this kind of impact,” he told USA Today.
But it was not to be. As Democratic strategist David Axelrod said at the time, most Americans personally liked Bush and did not appreciate Moore’s personal attacks. In the end, the movie played well to liberal audiences and was ignored by non-liberals. Moore later disputed the notion that the movie had no impact, insisting that it freed people to start criticizing Bush. He claimed that the movie lowered the president’s approval rating and it never again improved. But PolitiFact said Moore was incorrect, that Bush’s ratings actually went up after the movie.
In an odd historical footnote to Moore’s movie, the conservative advocacy group Citizens United filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, contending that broadcast ads constituted campaign attacks paid for by corporate funds in violation of the law. Citizens United also tried to undermine Democrat John Kerry’s campaign by putting out a movie of its own called Celsius 41.11.
Citizens United tried again in 2008 with Hillary: The Movie, an attack on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. But the FEC blocked airing of the movie, calling it a violation of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act, using the same reasoning Citizens United had used against Moore. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the landmark ruling that prohibited government from restricting campaign expenditures by nonprofit corporations. For that reason, Hillary: The Movie may have been the most influential political movie ever made.
The closest any movie came to affecting the course of a presidential campaign may have been Frank Capra’s State of the Union. It came out in the middle of the 1948 race, premiering in Washington at an event sponsored by the White House Correspondents’ Association and drawing both Capra and President Harry Truman.
Pointing to that premiere, Variety in 1949 called State of the Union the “film that changed history.” Said an advance man for Truman: “The most important film of 1949—if importance lies in influencing people and events—was Frank Capra’s State of the Union.” It was influential because it showed how “a presidential candidate beats the political bosses by going over their heads with a dramatic appeal to the people.” Truman watched the film repeatedly and, contended Variety, “he did exactly what the movie candidate did—he went to the people.”
If that’s true, State of the Union stands alone. For most movies about politics, candidates just hope not to be damaged. As John Glenn said in 1983 when asked about The Right Stuff, “If President Reagan survived Bedtime for Bonzo, I guess I can survive.”