The Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound and nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, ignited a political firestorm that has been churning Stateside ever since — and probably will for at least the duration of this year’s presidential election cycle.
Some Republicans, of course, likely hope “Transformers” director Michael Bay’s movie about the night of the attacks, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” will help sway voters against their presumed Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the incident.
It could, but the movie — based on the nonfiction book by journalism professor and former Boston Globe reporter Mitchell Zuckoff and five of the surviving members of that CIA Annex Security Team — never mentions Clinton by name.
The film does depict the lack of American military response when those in the annex desperately call for help as waves of Islamic militants besiege them through the night. The local CIA chief’s initial command that the security team stand down rather than aid the diplomats is dramatized, and they overhear a mistaken TV news report that the Benghazi violence is just one of many protests throughout the Islamic world in response to the incendiary online film clip “Innocence of Muslims.”
The bulk, however, of the movie’s take on the chaotic situation, which resulted in the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and two of the CIA’s security contractors, is from the security contractors’ on-the-ground viewpoints.
And that’s how two of the actors who play them want us to see it.
“I believe that this is a very true-to-life account, and we’re telling these guys’ stories,” says Pablo Schreiber, who plays ex-Army Ranger Kris “Tanto” Paronto, one of the six security guards (the others were either former Marines or Navy SEALs) who tried to rescue Stevens and Smith and then defended the annex compound. “The events of the terrorists’ attacks on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, have been highly politicized. But this is a nonpolitical movie. This is a movie that exists only to tell the true story of what happened to these guys on that night.”
James Badge Dale plays Tyrone S. Woods, a former SEAL who did not survive the Battle of Benghazi. His relationship with a character called Jack Silva, an old Navy comrade played by John Krasinski, is the movie’s emotional fulcrum.
“Our job is to tell the story of these guys on the ground and to leave the politics out of it,” Badge Dale further confirms. “Tyrone Woods’ mother said to me that what she hopes is that people can leave all that stuff at home, just look at what these guys did that night and pay respect to the four Americans who died that night.
“Also, the fact is a lot of other people died that night,” Badge Dale continues, referring to numerous terrorists as well as other Libyans. “Tanto said it the other day. He said, ‘Nobody won; there was a very high price to pay. If we can leave all of this other craziness out of it, maybe something good can come out of this.’”
While he did not have the opportunity some of the other actors did to meet his real-life counterpart, Badge Dale spent time before production with Woods’ dear friend, the actual “Silva,” who does not want his true name known for understandable reasons.
“He remains private, but allowed me to come up and visit with him,” the actor reports. “He and Ty served on SEAL teams together and then they contracted together, so he had known Ty for about 12 years. We spent about 24 hours together. We drank some beer and then we went up on a mountain and talked, and he told me about his time with Ty and the teams and what happened that night in Benghazi.
Then we came back down and he said to me, ‘I trust you to tell Ty’s story. The only thing I’ll say to you is trust your instincts.’ Then he let me run with it.”
Schreiber, on the other hand, was able to get all he wanted out of Paronto, the offbeat humorist in the group.
“We spoke on Skype five times, then he came to New York for a couple of days and we hung out,” Schreiber says. “He was also in Malta for a week while we were shooting. We got to hang out a lot, and the most important thing to me was getting to learn his very specific sense of humor.
“And we had a lot of other resources,” Schreiber continues. “A team of ex-Navy SEALs were there at all times to help us with the technical aspects.”
All of those guys had known Woods back in their SEAL days and contributed further details for Badge Dale’s portrayal. The security team actors also attended a three-day boot camp in Simi Valley, where they learned small arms skills and combat team tactics.
That didn’t completely turn Schreiber and Badge Dale into elite warriors. Though both actors had played military men several times before, packing on pounds of muscle to portray the best of the best sort of backfired.
“I tore an Achilles tendon running,” Badge Dale recalls. “Here was my biggest issue: I put on 20 pounds for this role, so I had a lot of increased size, man. I went through an entire wardrobe closet; I’ve torn up all my old jeans. And I had to keep the weight on the whole time. But I like to run; I’m a big runner. One day my body just couldn’t handle the weight. Still, I showed up to work; I did my job. I just put my foot in an ice bucket.”
“I hurt my back two months before shooting, training for the movie,” Schreiber notes. “I put on about 25 pounds of muscle, so I was doing a lot of dead lifts and squats. I herniated three discs in my lower back. So I spent the two months of the movie hopped up on painkillers and muscle relaxants. Then while we were shooting, I ended up tearing my MCL and also breaking my wrist falling off the back of a pickup truck.”
Needless to say, they’re not comparing their experiences to those of the real soldiers. The actors have incalculable respect for their subjects, and they hope their film will transfer that to all who see it.
“It’s a story that needs to be told about real human beings behaving extraordinarily under very difficult circumstances,” Schreiber says. “I learned everything making this, everything that’s laid out in the book and everything that you see in the movie. It’s an education that’s worth having, and I think it’s an eye-opening experience.”
“No one’s telling this story,” Badge Dale adds. “You hear all these other versions of it, you see everybody pointing fingers at each other, yet here is this miraculous story of heroism and selflessness, and that’s the story that’s worth telling.”
Story by Bob Strauss, firstname.lastname@example.org