I was too young during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to realize exactly what was at stake or how close mankind came to annihilating itself. Roger Donaldson’s incredibly sobering and emotionally wrenching behind-the-scenes drama drives home the unparalleled events that brought the world to the brink of the unthinkable. Thirteen Days is not only an important history primer, but a powerful reminder of how technology and warfare can move in unintended and catastrophic directions.
Donaldson and screenwriter David Self create a nail-biting, frighteningly authentic day-by-day replay of those terrifying 13 days as seen from inside the White House. Historians might quibble over some of the details, but according to the New York Times, top scholars say the film gets the stories and overarching themes right.
Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the two pivotal players in diverting Armageddon, are not the central characters of Donaldson’s film; rather, the events themselves take center stage. We see those events unfold primarily through the eyes of special assistant to the president Kenny O’Donnell, a trusted Kennedy friend who was present during most of the National Security Council deliberations. The historical narrative is based primarily on Bobby Kennedy’s memoirs of the same name, while conversations between O’Donnell and the Kennedys are based on taped interviews conducted years after the crisis. O’Donnell’s point of view works well in telling the events of those harrowing two weeks. Kevin Costner, if you ignore his distracting attempt at a Boston accent, gives one of his strongest performances as O’Donnell.
Bruce Greenwood (Double Jeopardy) lacks Jack Kennedy’s charm and charisma, and he doesn’t always portray convincingly the agonizing soul-searching demanded of the president. Steven Culp is more convincing as the “brilliant, ruthless” Kennedy, perhaps because he so uncannily resembles Bobby.
The film follows the Cuban Missile Crisis from the day satellite pictures showed nuclear missiles just 90 miles off our shores, through the rapid escalation of events that had two world superpowers standing “eyeball to eyeball” ready to use what were euphemistically called “weapons of mass destruction.” Though history shows how the situation ends, Thirteen Days maintains a tight grip that never lets up.
The more hawkish generals are itching to “shoot the big red dog digging in our back yard,” even if it means obliterating the small island country. Kennedy, himself a war veteran, is not only shrewd enough to know the Soviets respect force, but also wise enough to recognize that a U.S. strike would mean Soviet retaliation and the very real possibility of nuclear war. Instead, he pushes for a blockade of Cuba, which the generals interpret as weakness. The president knows he must gain consensus for his blockade, reign in the generals, maintain surveillance in increasingly hostile territory, keep the armed forces on alert, keep an increasingly suspicious press at bay, and never give the Soviets a hint of the dissension he’s trying to manage within his own ranks. He also must decipher the missives from Khrushchev, second-guessing what the Soviets’ real intentions are.
It’s an overwhelming challenge, but one Kennedy meets with rare leadership, as history attests. In his infinite wisdom, Kennedy cites Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which demonstrated how World War I resulted from military forces believing they could predict each other’s every move. Their mistake, of course, was basing those assumptions on the technology of the last war, just as Kennedy’s generals similarly fail to recognize the new realities of nuclear technology. “This is a new language, a new vocabulary the likes of which the world has never seen,” Kennedy reminds his advisors. Khrushchev, too, must have realized this, because ultimately the crisis is resolved through back-door channels, absent the Pentagon and Politburo.
While most of the film shows how our leaders were frantically working to manage the crisis, Donaldson pays modest heed, largely through O’Donnell, to how the crisis was affecting real people. We see O’Donnell as a man who loves his wife and children but can’t tell them about the reality of the situation. In one scene, he calls to tell his wife to keep the children close, the television on and the car ready. He knows such instructions are strictly for morale. The missiles would obliterate them all within five minutes of launch. In that chilling moment, you realize what savvy Americans of the time knew: nuclear annihilation was an actual possibility. “If the sun comes up tomorrow, it will be because the meeting went well,” O’Donnell tells his wife. “That’s all there is between us and the devil.”
Mankind must certainly be the devil, and yet, as O’Donnell says, “Every day the sun comes up says something about us.” It’s appropriate that Thirteen Days avoids the standard Hollywood jingoistic gloating after the resolution. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not a victory for America or the Soviet Union. It was a victory for humanity, just as humanity was the ultimate enemy.
Kennedy’s words are as stirring today as they were then: “Our problems are man-made and therefore they can be solved by men. We all inhabit the same planet, breath the same air … and we all are mortal.” Hopefully we’ll heed his words, and sound minds will prevail as we continue to deal with the nuclear legacy of the Cold War and an increasingly unstable world.
Thirteen Days (PG-13) HHH1/2 Directed by Roger Donaldson. Starring Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp.