After years of practicing silly duck-and-cover drills in elementary school and being taught with repeated video clips of Khrushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations that the Soviet Union was determined to destroy us, I was among many who were scared during those memorable October days in 1962 when the U.S. stared down the Soviet Union in Cuba. Many of my junior high teachers kept the radio tuned to the news as we half-heartedly did our schoolwork, and we practiced our hall drills in case the nuclear bombs began to fall. Of course we weren't naïve enough to believe that we would survive such an event.
Passing years help give us a better perspective on historical events that are often confusing when you go through them. Such is the case with the Cuban missile crisis. To get a better perspective on what really went on inside the inner circles requires access to the source material. Of course we had access to some of this material through Robert F. Kennedy's and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but only people who still believe in the Easter bunny would believe that the entire story could be told there.
In fact, the National Security Archive had to file a law suit against the U.S. government in 1987 to gain access to certain documents concerning the Cuban missile crisis. Head of the archive Tom Blanton says that the major breakthrough in the stone wall came recently when the Russian government told the U.S. to release the Kennedy-Krushchev letters. The principles have all passed away, but the largely untold story remains the Russian perspective. After hearing Sergei Khrushchev relate stories about his famous father on NPR radio, it's evident that the perceptions of Khrushchev during the 1950s and 1960s are largely fictional.
Now that fuller access to archives has been granted, we can come closer to the truth, and we find out how close we really did come to World War III during those intense few days in 1962. Based on The Kennedy Tapes - Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, director Roger Donaldson brings us a new mythology of the crisis in Thirteen Days. The spirit of the times is preserved well; just realize that this is a fictionalized recounting in the spirit of Oliver Stone's retellings of the Nixon presidency, JFK's assassination, and the Viet Nam War.
One incontrovertible fact remains—October, 1962 is the closest that we have ever come to nuclear war. Though background history would include Cold War Soviet-U.S. relations and the ill-advised Bay of Pigs fiasco, the story begins when a U-2 spy plane takes pictures of Soviet missiles being planted on Cuban soil just 90 miles from the U.S. border.
The U.S. government is thrown into controlled chaos as President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) pursues the correct political and strategic path, well aware of the fact that a misstep will plunge the country into nuclear war. When first informed about the Cuban missile buildup, Kennedy calls on his closest friends and advisors to plan strategy—Presidential advisor Kenneth O'Donnell (Kevin Costner) and Attorney General (and First Brother) Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp).
Other key figures involved in advisory roles include Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), Secretary of State Dean Rusk (Henry Strozier), UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Though we know the eventual outcome of the crisis, the fact that we didn't go to war with the Soviets seems a miracle, considering the portrayal of the hawklike and forceful Joint Chiefs, who attempt to bully Kennedy into a position where it seems that there is no other viable option.
Early in the discussion Adlai Stevenson discredits himself by proposing a dovelike proposal of offering to dismantle outdated missiles in Turkey in exchange for the dismantling of the Cuban missiles. Of course the Joint Chiefs hate this idea and no one else in the administration publicly acknowledges its wisdom, though O'Donnell communicates his intrigue with his eyes and the Kennedys both quietly take in the suggestion. It will turn out to be the key piece of the puzzle that averts war.
There are other moments that lead us to the brink of war and create suspense in this political thriller. At first the Joint Chiefs offer Kennedy only two options—both of which lead to war. We know from history that we will attempt a third option, but McNamara later only reluctantly comes up with the blockade idea that Kennedy uses.
O’Donnell plays superhero here, anticipating how the Joint Chiefs are determined to box Kennedy into declaring war. He continually advises the President about political tactics and supports the brothers before crucial moments, cheering them on to make the right moves. Like a chessmaster, O'Donnell anticipates the strategy of the hawkish chiefs and preempts their moves by calling Navy pilots directly to inform them that no Cubans will be firing at them.
Of course much of this is done for dramatic purposes, and fiction is mixed with fact. We get the famous moment when the Soviet ships turn around inexplicably to grant Dean Rusk opportunity to make his most famous quotation: “We went eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” While many of the facts are distorted, the spirit of the times is preserved, and the basic story is told in entertaining enough fashion to maintain interest.
The biggest distortion of the facts lies with the O'Donnell character. In real life, he was on the periphery of the inner circle during the Cuban Missile Crisis. O'Donnell first met Robert F. Kennedy when they both tried out for the Harvard football team, and they became good friends and roommates. Later O'Donnell served as JFK's political campaign manager and as appointments secretary and chief gatekeeper for the President. But the idea that he was included with the two Kennedy brothers during this crisis is purely fictional.
Not that this is a horrible idea dramatically. It's easier for us to accept O'Donnell's point of view than it would be to imagine ourselves inside either of the legendary Kennedys. That would open up a whole new can of worms and bring protests from the family members. After all, it's a little easier to maintain an outsider point of view and observe JFK and RFK than it would be to attempt to get inside their heads. A filmmaker just couldn't be that smart, and a wise filmmaker realizes that he couldn't win politically or artistically by attempting such a feat.
As difficult as it is to imagine Costner as the former quarterback who has to offer pep talks to the Kennedy brothers before their big moments, it does allow us to see these men as regular human beings under extraordinary pressure. It helps us relate to them on a more human level. Where the film gets a little wacky is when it attempts to use Costner's character as both the ultimate controlling hero and as our everyman to represent the nation.
One minute Costner takes it upon himself to manipulate the military, getting on the phone to individual pilots, and the next minute we see him take off from the White House in the middle of the crisis to gaze at his son playing Pop Warner football. Why didn't they give us some scenes with his wife and the children during the crisis or show us some scenes of his kids listening to the radio and practicing their duck-and-cover drills like we really did back in those days? I was about the same age as his son back then and would have asked Costner what he was doing there and told him to get back to the White House to save our lives.
In reality, messages between the two powers sometimes took as long as 8 hours to complete. They would be transmitted in code in Russian, which would require translation, and then delivery through various agencies (sometimes by bicycle) before they would be delivered to the White House. Due to this crisis, the “hot line” was installed. To shorten the time, the film gives the false impression that there was a direct teletype link between the two countries.
While the script takes some liberties with the facts, I was glad to see that they reveal the secret deal that we made with the Soviets that none of us could be aware of during the actual events. The public perception was that the Soviets had simply backed down to U.S. power because they didn't want to go to war and that Kennedy had stood his ground and proved that he was no weakling. No mention of NATO and the later removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey was made public at the time (the deal lay hidden for years). At least the film sheds some light on that fact, and will probably spark more interest in this area.
Myths abound in history. One that I would like to see exposed lies with our false impressions of Khrushchev. Even though the “enemy” is unseen here, Russian diplomat Andrei Gromyko (Olek Krupa), states that there are good men on both sides during his crucial meeting with Robert Kennedy. I suspect that we will find that Khrushchev was actually a good man at heart once someone explores the details of his life. I once played a Russian chess player who told me that it pained him a great deal to see the bad translation of Khrushchev's most famous moment—he insisted that a more accurate translation of “we will bury you” would be “we will endure over you.”
Costner's initially ridiculously forced and fake Boston accent is mostly forgotten about a few minutes into the film. He ends up being an acceptable protagonist in the film, playing the hero, yet being low key enough to not outshine the real stars of Thirteen Days.
Bruce Greenwood does a great job portraying John F. Kennedy here. There’s a physical resemblance, not just in his appearance but also with his body language and attitude. Of course we mostly remember JFK by his press conferences and still photographs, but the quiet moments Greenwood presents—the painful backaches, the thoughtful questioning of his advisors, the poker faced expressions, and compassionate staring out of the window at his wife and children—all communicate a great deal about the President and make a believable portrait.
Likewise, Steven Culp personifies Bobby quite well. The scenes of RFK with sleeves rolled up, brainstorming with key advisors are quite well done, as is the scene approaching his crucial meeting with Gromyko. I nearly applauded when Culp tells Costner that he doesn't need another pep talk from the former quarterback, and it's a nice human touch when he states that he doesn't like to be portrayed as the brilliant brother and ruthless. One of the best scenes shows RFK demonstrating political savvy during the meeting with Gromyko when the idea of the secret Turkish missile tradeoff is made. Whether it happened exactly like this is beside the point. It mixes the personal and political and feels real.
The plot device that screenwriter David Self uses that leads to the ultimate solution is quite effective—namely the Russian spy who may have an authentic offer from Nikita Khruschev that gives them a way out of the mess. It turns out that he is a parallel character to Costner's character, as the spy is an old war buddy of Khruschev's. It demonstrates how history and politics are often decided through personal relationships, and how the “real” story is often hidden from the public.
It's good that
Thirteen Days was made, despite its distortions. It brings back a lot of memories from those times and offers a complex understanding of what happened, so it does clear up some of the falsehoods that we were taught through our limited media acess.
This is perfectly understandable, since the U.S. government often attempts to distort the facts, just as any political entity does. We witness this firsthand in the film, as JFK calls a Time writer off breaking a story, and Costner's character threatens another writer with cutting off his White House access. With the release of Thirteen Days, we have a competent drama told with Hollywood sensitivities that will create a slightly more accurate mythology of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the masses. Hopefully this will inspire a few intelligent people to fill in the cracks with a more complete story.