Last week, in a less-than-glowing review of Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, your correspondent predicted Bay’s latest steaming stew of explosions and flag-waving “is going to be a gigantic commercial success,” as it seemed “a perfect storm of moneymaking elements.” Well, nobody likes to be wrong — except me, this once. Because in spite of such assumptions from box office watchers on all ends of the political spectrum, 13 Hours was a serious under-performer over the holiday weekend, wheezing into fourth place with a mere $16.2 million, director Bay’s lowest opening weekend since 2005’s notorious flop The Island. Yet it seemed like a surefire smash, programmed as it was into the mid-January war-movie slot that kicked off successful runs for American Sniper, Lone Survivor, and Zero Dark Thirty over the past three years. So, what happened?
Let’s dispense with a few of the simpler theories. You could argue that 13 Hours disappointed because it’s simply a bad movie, a garbage scow of cardboard characterizations, indecipherable action, laughable sensitive-family-men interludes, and funny-papers dialogue, but who’re we kidding; if any filmmaker makes the case for how little bearing the quality of cinema has on its commercial reception, it’s Michael Bay.
You could also point out that, unlike the previous trilogy of January war-movie success stories, it didn’t have an Oscar-qualifying run in December as a chance to build buzz, but that doesn’t pass the smell test either — that’s the one type of release where good reviews do matter, and it wouldn’t have seen many of them. If anything, the fact that 13 Hours got a wide rather than platform release makes its opening weekend numbers even worse; American Sniper’s mind-boggling $89 million opening last January didn’t include the revenue generated in its previous three weeks in major markets.
But wait, 13 Hours defenders are insisting, it was on far fewer screens than the three movies that topped it this weekend, so of course it made less money. And this is true: 13 Hours opened on just shy of 2400 screens, compared to over 3000 each for Ride Along 2, The Revenant, and Star Wars. And that’s where we have to consult the per-screen average for the real story — and hey, look, according to that version of the chart, 13 Hours came in seventh. Its $6,789 per-screen average nearly matches the total box office deficit of first-ranked Ride Along 2; in both cases, Ice Cube and Kevin Hart did roughly twice Bay and company’s business. (Which has gotta sting a little; as film writer Will Goss points out, “a new Michael Bay film was bested at the box office by a sequel about two black cops in Miami, trying to bring down a drug dealer.”)
A more likely explanation is the question of star power. Zero Dark Thirty did the closest numbers to 13 Hours’ in its first wide weekend in 2013, with $24 million; star Jessica Chastain is a critical fave but not quite a box-office driver, though she probably attracts a bit more of an audience than John Krasinksi or James Badge Dale. But Lone Survivor ($37 million wide opening) and American Sniper weren’t just red state-friendly war pictures; they were showcases for big stars like Mark Wahlberg and Bradley Cooper. However, neither of those actors are sure things; in the period following those films’ success, audiences didn’t turn out for Wahlberg’s The Gambler and Ted 2, or Cooper’s Aloha and Burnt.
In light of the latter flops, it seems more and more likely that American Sniper’s giant opening was a combination of Cooper, interest in the subject matter, and the considerable pull, across all corners of the cinematic and political spectrum, of Clint Eastwood — a man who, “empty chair” business notwithstanding, has never been easy to categorize politically. Sure, Eastwood is a Republican; but he’s a socially liberal one, and a filmmaker whose directorial work has never treated death, in war or peace, in the Middle East or the American West, as something to be cinematically trivialized, or tallied up for cheap political points. And while plenty of simple-minded moviegoers read American Sniper that way, that was on them, not on the film.
And that, I think, was the ultimate undoing of 13 Hours, because there was no other way to read it. Its makers strenuously insisted it “doesn’t get political at all,” that it has “no political agenda,” that it wasn’t the anti-Clinton manifesto the Benghazi acrostic-makers were thirsting for, but while they were making those pronouncements, Paramount’s marketing team was quietly whispering out of the right side of their mouths. They screened it early — not for critics, but for conservative commentators, who supplied the pull-quotes for its TV spots, including an ad during an NFL playoff game that featured praise from the likes of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes. They supplied star John Krasinski to the ultra-conservative Town Hall for an exclusive interview; sent cast, crew, and subjects not only to Fox News, but to far-right radio hosts like Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager; and bought a paid advertorial (with the peculiar Beaches shout-out headline “Did I Ever Tell You You’re My Hero”) at the conservative National Review. Unsurprisingly, that site’s rave review, and Hayes’ at the Weekly Standard, were published several days before the end of the studio’s review embargo— one that was strenuously enforced against outlets who weren’t in the tank for the movie, apparently.
To be fair, Paramount went into the weekend predicting a modest $20 million opening, though cheerleaders like the New York Post’s Kyle “Ladies Don’t Understand Goodfellas” Smith insisted the film would “more than double that.” (Looks like his box office prediction skills are about as finely tuned as his gender politics.) But even that unmet expectation seemed low, considering the aforementioned standard bearers — unless you take into account that some of their monster receipts came from the wallets of moviegoers who were, at the very least, politically agnostic. There wasn’t room for that kind of indifference this time around; between the repurposing of Benghazi as an all-around anti-Clinton dog whistle by conservatives, the film’s aforementioned championing by far-right press, and its embrace by GOP presidential candidates (Donald Trump rented out an Iowa movie theater and gave away free tickets to a 13 Hours screening, while Ted Cruz began his closing statement at Thursday’s GOP debate with an explicit plug for the film), it became clear to casual moviegoers that 13 Hours was not meant for them.
These narrow returns for explicitly political films shouldn’t come as a surprise; a whole slew of left-leaning films about the War on Terror (Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs) bombed in 2007, and even the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker didn’t exactly do bang-up business. The occasional rabble-rousing political documentary will put up big box office numbers (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America), but most barely make a blip. Forbes’ impeccable Scott Mendelson wonders if there might be a political equivalent to the “geek ceiling.” If there is, 13 Hours hit the “political ceiling,” and won’t break it. Films like ZD30 and American Sniper proved studio pictures about our modern military conflicts can make money, if they’re served up with a bit of nuance and complexity. But those qualities were sorely missing in 13 Hours, which ultimately amounted to two-plus hours of red meat for red staters.