‘True’ film on Benghazi attack sparks dispute

Shout it out: Michael Bay, who also made Pearl Harbor, directs 13 Hours. © Paramount Pictures

The film 13 Hours, which is based on a terrorist attack in 2012, claims to be ‘a true story’. But some are disputing its account of events. Are real life stories really truer than fiction?

On 11 September 2012, as the USA was marking the anniversary of its deadliest terrorist attack, a new tragedy struck. At 10pm, jihadist militants opened fire on the US embassy in the Libyan city of Benghazi. Four Americans were killed.

The attack is the source of fierce partisan debate in the US. The Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton, has faced criticism for rejecting a request for extra security at the consulate beforehand. Some have even claimed information was covered up.

Now the film 13 Hours has reignited interest in the story. The film, released in the UK today, depicts six military contractors’ attempts to defend a CIA base, reinforce the embassy and defend those trapped inside.

It does not feature Clinton or her fellow Democrat, President Obama, but it is likely to make uncomfortable viewing for both. The contractors are shown being undermined by their superiors and as the attack starts an embassy official says ‘we need immediate assistance — we are overrun’.

Clinton is the favourite to become president this year, and her Republican rivals and those sympathetic to them have promoted the film. Donald Trump funded a special screening for his supporters. Ted Cruz said it showed ‘the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives in Benghazi and the politicians that abandoned them’.

‘This is a true story,’ declares the film’s trailer. But its factual basis has been questioned. CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani called it ‘a distortion of the events’. The officer who was in charge of the CIA base has denied that a crucial moment, when he is shown issuing an order to stand down, took place.

The film fits into a popular tradition: four of the nine nominees for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars are based on true stories. Several blockbusters, including Black Hawk Down, American Sniper and Pearl Harbor, have explored real-life US military operations. Others, such as Erin Brockovitch and All the President’s Men, have explored politically divisive events.

I know this much is true

Real-life films and books are the truest we have, say some. The reason is simple: the events in them actually happened. Investigation and research will always uncover more truth than the fanciful brain of a creative individual can imagine. Our fallible species is incapable of imagining anything as realistic as reality itself.

Others disagree. ‘True stories’ are usually anything but; they are informed by hazy memories, partial information and the prejudices of their creators. Fiction, on the other hand, is free to explore universal truths, free of the constraints of minute detail. And believing a film can ever be a ‘true story’ is the most untrue thing of all.

You Decide

  1. Do you trust ‘true’ stories more than fictional ones?
  2. Do those who make ‘true’ stories have more of a responsibility to reflect real events, or to entertain the public?


  1. Create a poster about the film. This could be positive, encouraging people to see it, or negative, encouraging them not to do so.
  2. Form teams of three and research a controversial event in history. Write and act out your own short play about it. As you watch other people’s work, consider how ‘true’ it is. What has been exaggerated or left out? Could they have taken a different perspective?

Some People Say...

“There is no such thing as the truth.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Shouldn’t I just go to films to enjoy them?
That is a valid reason to watch a film, and it is often the main reason why people go — after all, going to the cinema is usually a leisure activity, rather than a chore. But some people argue that our reception of art changes our perception of the world. This may be the case with a ‘true story’ film like 13 Hours — but the same could also be said of fictional films or books.
Which ‘true story’ films have enduring appeal?
The answer to that is subjective, but Schindler’s List is widely regarded as a classic film. It is about Oskar Schindler, a factory owner who saved Jewish people from the Holocaust by employing them and falsifying their paperwork. Amazing Grace, which is about the abolition of the slave trade, is also held in high regard.

Word Watch

Four Americans
The US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was among the dead. The others were diplomat Sean Smith and CIA operatives Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Clinton has been criticised for using a private e-mail account for some of her government business. So far eight Congressional investigations have taken place into events in Benghazi and none have found evidence of a cover-up. But Clinton’s opponents have continued to raise the issue, and in September the FBI recovered some emails which were said to have been deleted.
Most bookmakers currently have her as marginally odds-on to win the presidency.
An anchor with Fox News, a conservative TV channel, has said: ‘If anyone sees this movie… and then goes on to vote for Hillary Clinton, they’re a criminal’.
Mitchell Zuckoff, who wrote the book on which the film is based, has said he stands by the account he gave. He says it is based on information from those who were involved on the night of the attack.
These films are Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, The Big Short and The Revenant.

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