Don’t Look for “13 Hours” to Dent Clinton’s Campaign

With one possible exception, Hollywood’s efforts to influence politics have fallen flat.

Libyan civilians watch fires at an Ansar al-Sharia Brigades compound in Benghazi, Libya. “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” depicts the events of the 2012 attack.
AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Jan. 19, 2016, 8 p.m.

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.”

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