Political Film Society - Thirteen Days


PFS Film Review
Thirteen Days


 

Thirteen DaysA nuclear winter nearly began in October 1962, when American leaders pondered a military response to the installation of more than two dozen offensive SS-4 nuclear missiles in Cuba that could hit nearly every city in the United States. The television docudrama The Missiles of October (1974) was based largely on Robert F. Kennedy’s book Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1971). With the publication in 1997 of The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, previous accounts have been revised. The film Thirteen Days, directed by Roger Donaldson, is the cinematic reworking of the events of October 1962, based on the May and Zelikow book, but a drama with less effective acting than the star-studded docudrama; the tagline is "You'll Never Believe How Close We Came." Filmed in Washington, D.C., the Philippines (to approximate a Cuban terrain), and the waters off Newport, Rhode Island, Thirteen Days focuses primarily on the tension between the civilian leadership of the Kennedy administration and the military brass, whose preferred option was for an air strike and ground invasion of Cuba in the belief that the Russian and international response was of no consequence. A major revelation in the new account is the central role played by Kenneth O’Donnell (played by Kevin Costner), who was Special Assistant to President John Kennedy (played by Bruce Greenwood), with an office next door to the Oval Office. Screenwriter David Self constructed much of the story from tapes of interviews with O’Donnell by journalist Sander Vanocur. O’Donnell spelled out the political consequences of every option considered by Kennedy and even gave his boss a pep talk at a low point in the crisis. A second major revelation is how top military commanders and Central Intelligence Agency director John McCone (played by Peter White), who had given bad advice the previous year in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, tried to subvert Kennedy’s pursuit of a nonviolent, peaceful solution to the crisis. Efforts of Air Force General Curtis LeMay (played by Kevin Conway) to send low-level reconnaissance aircraft to Cuba, hoping that one such airplane would be shot down so that an outcry in the United States would call for a major military solution, were foiled when O’Donnell called the pilots in charge of the missions with personal instructions from Kennedy, resulting in a cover-up of the antiaircraft shooting and of one death. Yet another provocative move occurred when General Maxwell Taylor (played by Bill Smitrovich) ordered military exercises in Puerto Rico (codenamed ORTSAC, transparently Castro spelled backward) in preparation for the invasion, a clearly insubordinate escalatory move. Although most Soviet ships bound for Cuba turned back after Kennedy announced a quarantine, two Soviet ships, accompanied by a submarine, were "lost" at night by naval reconnaissance, proceeded past the 500-mile quarantine line, and were rediscovered in the morning, whereupon Admiral George Anderson (played by Madison Mason) ordered shots fired at one of the Soviet ships, the Marcula, in the presence of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (played by Dylan Baker). Although the shots were merely aerial clusters, McNamara then flew into a rage, telling Anderson that no shots of any kind were to be fired without his approval, which in turn awaited a direct order from President Kennedy. Two other hostile signals, which Kennedy found out after the fact, were the detonation of a hydrogen bomb at Johnston Island and the dispatching of a U-2 spy plane to Siberia, where it was shot down. Thirteen Days makes much of the confusing Soviet response to Kennedy’s quarantine ultimatum and the important meeting between Attorney General Robert Kennedy (played by Steven Culp) and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin (played by Elya Baskin) which served to bring the crisis to an end. Thirteen Days also depicts United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (played by Michael Fairman) as politically isolated in his preference for a diplomatic solution, whereas The Missiles of October gives him a more crucial role in raising issues that had not previously been considered seriously. Although The Missiles of October version provided a more informative glimpse into Soviet decisionmaking, Thirteen Days highlights the uncertainty of dealing with Premier Nikita Khrushchev, whom many American top officials believed might have been ousted midway through the crisis. In Thirteen Days President Kennedy comes across as a cautious, pensive primus inter pares who was consciously trying to avoid World War III, having learned well the lessons of Barbara Tuckman’s The Guns of August (1962), which demonstrates that World War I began because leaders in several countries, on the basis of incomplete information, gave irreversible orders that unleashed military moves that could not be later recalled. The drama of the film appears to teach lessons to Americans who perhaps should reconsider the legitimacy of recent wars against Iraq and Serbia, where diplomatic options may have been pursued much less carefully. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Thirteen Days as best exposé and best film on peace for the year 2000. MH

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