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Timing of Movie About Benghazi Attack Could Test Clinton in Iowa Caucuses

Michael Cieply and Amy Chozick
Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks against the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, Jan. 23, 2013.
Getty Images

"We got nobody backing us up here. Nothing."

If things go by the script, that line will soon be spoken by the actor John Krasinski in Michael Bay's movie version of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

But Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state when the United States ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed in the assault, may be the one feeling exposed.

Set for release by Paramount Pictures on Jan. 15, Mr. Bay's film — called "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" — will land just two weeks before party caucuses in Iowa. For audiences across the country, it recalls the most controversial episode of Mrs. Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, and one her campaign aides have been trying to put behind them, just before the most critical contest in the Democratic presidential contest.

An unabashed action movie, "13 Hours" will focus on the heroics of real-life Central Intelligence Agency security contractors who defied orders, and two of whom died, in an attempt to defend a State Department compound and nearby C.I.A. annex in Benghazi.

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Republican critics of Mrs. Clinton have for years tried to tie what they say was her mismanagement at the State Department to the attack, but that argument has largely been relegated to conservative news media, not a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster.

In the new film, Mr. Krasinski, best known for his role in "The Office" television series, plays the contractor Jack Silva, who survived the attack. James Badge Dale, from "World War Z," plays Tyrone S. Woods, another contractor, who did not.

Scenes in the film's trailer align with a draft from late last year of a script by Chuck Hogan, based on a book by Mitchell Zuckoff. In it, Mr. Hogan does not mention Mrs. Clinton, President Obama or almost any other identifiable Washington official.

The film, which is still being edited, is faithful to Mr. Zuckoff's account and strains to avoid political tilt, said people briefed on its progress who spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality strictures.

"While the events have been the subject of continuous heated debate, few have heard or seen the story told from the perspective of these brave men because it has been largely lost amidst the political back and forth," Erwin Stoff, a producer of the film, said in a statement.

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In any case, "13 Hours" promises to leave millions of viewers — with his "Transformers" series, Mr. Bay has become one of the world's most popular filmmakers — pondering uncomfortable questions about Benghazi precisely when the Clinton campaign will be working to put the issue away.

"We're reminders of the sacrifice they're not prepared to make," says Mr. Dale's character, Rone Woods. It is one of several biting lines about the gap between officialdom and those mired in ground truth, this one delivered in a military bull session just before the attack.

The Republican-led congressional investigation into the attack in Benghazi led to Mrs. Clinton's current headaches about her use of a private email server at the State Department, after the committee discovered she had conducted official business exclusively with a private email account. During Tuesday's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Mrs. Clinton's closest competitor for the party's nomination, stood up for her by saying, "The American people are sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails."

Democrats are pushing to shut down the Select Committee on Benghazi, before which Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to testify Oct. 22. Last week, Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, implied that the purpose of diving into the 2012 attacks on the compound in Libya had been to damage Mrs. Clinton politically.

"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" Mr. McCarthy said in a striking moment of candor the Clinton campaign promptly seized on. "We put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today?"

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But in the coming months, at least some issues that have figured in the congressional investigation — particularly, whether the State Department provided insufficient protection for Mr. Stevens during a visit to the Benghazi diplomatic compound on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — will come alive in movie theaters.

"Republicans have already made clear they will use this movie to revive theories discredited by their own party's investigators to continue their admittedly partisan attacks against Hillary Clinton," said David Brock, the author of "The Benghazi Hoax" and the founder of Correct the Record, an outside group that defends Mrs. Clinton.

"Maybe Hollywood will have better luck creating a conservative fantasy" than congressional Republicans have, he added.

A spokesman for the campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

One stinging tag line at the end of the script points out that a C.I.A. base chief who tried to delay the security contractors from aiding Mr. Stevens was nonetheless awarded an agency medal. (American officials have said that the C.I.A. security team paused to try to get support from Libyan militia allies.) It fulfills a sarcastic soldierly prediction in the script, made at the height of the action, that the base chief would be rewarded for his poor decisions.

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Mr. Bay, whose films are known more for heat than enlightenment, has been publicly coy about his own political leanings. "I don't feel the need to go out and tell people what to believe politically," he once told an interviewer who tried to build a case in Mother Jones that Bay films like "Armageddon" and "Bad Boys II" carried conservative messaging.

Whether "13 Hours" makes an impression will depend partly on whether it can "jump the theaters," said Christopher Lehane, a political consultant who has worked with the Clintons and helped promote Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." A political film with impact has to generate "questions from the press and public" and circulate information beyond theatrical viewers, Mr. Lehane said in an email last week.

As for the January release of "13 Hours," the date may have less to do with presidential politics than an attempt by Paramount to capitalize on a seasonal market that has been good to action films in recent years. This year, the big January hit was "Taken 3," with Liam Neeson; last year, it was "Ride Along," with Ice Cube and Kevin Hart.

Though released in late December 2014, Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," which took in $350 million at the domestic box office, similarly prospered through January with its action-oriented, patriotic message.

Martin Luther King's Birthday "has been a historically great date as evidence by the success of 'American Sniper' and 'Lone Survivor,' " a Paramount spokeswoman said.

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According to one person briefed on the film's scheduling, Paramount executives briefly considered bumping the release to a date after the Iowa caucuses, but concluded that any delay would simply push it closer to primaries and the general election.

To date, Mrs. Clinton has managed to sidestep any damage from several potentially threatening Hollywood projects. An independent biopic about her youthful work on the Watergate investigation and love affair with Bill Clinton stalled, and two Clinton documentaries were put aside by HBO and CNN.

David Gordon Green's "Our Brand Is Crisis," a Warner Bros. film loosely based on the antics of some old Clinton political consultants who went to work in (and on) Bolivia, changed all the names and airbrushed out the Clinton associations.

That leaves "13 Hours," a film whose heroes find themselves puzzling over what Mr. Stevens was doing in Benghazi, why his State Department protection was so thin and where American might was hiding when he, and they, were under fire.

"Air support?" says the contractor Kris Paranto, played by Pablo Schreiber, who has appeared in shows like "The Brink" and "Orange Is the New Black."

"That'd be too easy."