The Cuban Missile Crisis, a tense two-week confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, is probably the closest the world has ever come to fighting a Third World War. Between October 16th and October 28th of 1962, the leaders of both superpowers were embroiled in a game of nuclear brinkmanship over the installation of medium-range ballistic missiles on Cuban soil. Each missile was armed with a three-megaton warhead and capable of striking targets on American soil within a radius of 1000 miles, which would allow the Soviets to kill up to 80 million people within five minutes of launch. For the United States, this clandestine move shifted the balance of power heavily into the hands of the Soviets, since they now had first-strike capability, instead of merely using their sizable nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against military aggression. President John F. Kennedy and his administration had to do something to counter this grave threat to its national security... but what? Diplomatic channels? A naval blockade? Air strikes? A full-scale invasion of Cuba? Or a combination of some or all of the above?
This is the topic of "Thirteen Days", the new film from director Roger Donaldson ("Dante's Peak"), which follows the efforts of the White House and the military during those tense two weeks to navigate towards a resolution. Though the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis is well known (hint: there was no nuclear war), if it even registers as a blip on the historical radar of the 'net generation', "Thirteen Days" still remains an exhilarating dramatization that finds the devil in the details. Like Ron Howard's "Apollo 13", the suspense of "Thirteen Days" lies not in knowing the ending, but in how it gets there.
The story begins on October 14th, when a U2 spy plane (yes, that's where the band got their name from) over Cuba photographs nuclear launch sites under construction. Two days later, definitive proof that Soviet medium-range missiles have been smuggled into Cuba is presented to President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood of "Rules of Engagement"). On a historical note, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had gambled that there would be no American response to such a bold move, since he thought Kennedy had no 'backbone', based on his performance at a 1960 summit.
Up until that moment, the most pressing matter facing the administration had been the imminent mid-term elections. With little time to waste before the missiles become operational, Kennedy circles his wagons and brings his most trusted advisors in on the situation, including his Attorney-General brother Robert (Steven Culp of "Nurse Betty") and presidential aide Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner of "For Love of the Game", who also produced), who likens the situation to 'catching the Jap carriers steaming for Pearl Harbor'.
Several options are presented and hotly contested by a White House divided. On the one hand, UN Ambassador Adelaide Stevenson (Michael Fairman, who incidentally starred in the 1982 TV movie "World War III") believes the solution lies in diplomacy, and urges Kennedy to strike a 'quid pro quo' deal with Khrushchev. On the other side of the fence are the military chiefs, Dean Acheson (Len Cariou), General Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway), and General Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich of "Air Force One"), who are itching to teach the 'red bastards' a lesson and advocate nothing less than a military response. As the key decision-maker, Kennedy finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Do nothing and the Soviets have a carte blanche to do as they please in the future. Appease the Soviets, and only encourage more 'bullying' in the future. Or react with military force and watch the situation escalate very quickly into a shooting war in Germany (Khrushchev had threatened to invade West Berlin earlier that year, and military action by the Americans would give the Soviets the pretext to do so) and possibly World War III.
Over the next thirteen days, a rollercoaster of events pushes the Kennedy administration ever closer to declaring war: low-level reconnaissance flights by American jets over the missile installations invite attack from Cuban ground forces, tense debates in the United Nations, the shuffling of offers and counteroffers between American and Soviet heads of state, rumors of a possible coup in the Kremlin, and potentially disastrous confrontations at sea. Meanwhile, the military chiefs, who are wholly convinced that military intervention is the only means of stopping the Soviets, are making surreptitious moves to back Kennedy into a corner, thereby forcing his had in declaring war.
If you are a fan of TV's "The West Wing" or enjoyed "The Contender", you will find "Thirteen Days" to be an engaging dissection of what many consider to be John F. Kennedy's shining moment. In addition to the suspense generated from Kennedy and his advisors attempting to decipher and anticipate the actions of their counterparts in Russia, additional complications arise from the discord within the administration itself. Not only do various White House staffers not try to push their own agendas, but they also start second-guessing their own Commander-in-Chief and make maverick decisions. Not surprisingly, two camps eventually develop, with the Kennedys on one side and everyone else on the other.
What is also interesting about the film is how it illustrates the complexity of the situation. From the misinterpretation of Soviet communiques, to the egos of those involved, to the careful omission of certain facts by pilots flying over Cuba, any number of things could have diverted the two nations down the path of war. Fortunately, Murphy's Law did not get the better of them, and cooler heads eventually prevailed.
Given that the subject matter of "Thirteen Days" deals with recent history, there has been some controversy over the liberties taken with its account of events. The most prominent is the elevation of the relatively peripheral O'Donnell to a more active role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, to serve as the audience's surrogate into the Kennedy circle. In reality, O'Donnell was a trusted advisor to Kennedy, including matters of national security, who found his way into Camelot by being a school chum of Bobby and by working on John's Senate campaigns. Though O'Donnell probably would have been involved to some degree in the deliberations, it is clear that the film exaggerates O'Donnell's impact on the decisions that were made, purely for dramatic reasons, allowing the audience to be privy to the conjectured debates in the Kennedy circle.
Of course, such a move also gives Costner's character a more prominent role, and thus more screen-time. Fortunately, Costner keeps his portrayal of O'Donnell low-key while still conveying the toll of the crisis on his character's psyche. However, the film could have done without his distracting less-than-assured Bostonian accent, which is almost comical at times. As the two Kennedy brothers, Greenwood and Culp are simply magnificent. As John, Greenwood not only gets the vocal inflections right, but he is able to successfully channel JFK's mannerisms and demeanor. Meanwhile, Culp is no stranger to playing RFK, as he played the exact same role in the HBO movie "Norma Jean & Marilyn" from 1996, and he captures the more aggressive nature of the man in his credible portrayal.
With "Thirteen Days", Donaldson has crafted a thrilling, intelligent, and enthralling production that brings one of the darkest chapters of the Cold War to life. Even though the outcome is hardly a mystery, the political jockeying that took place behind closed doors throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis is presented in a tautly-executed and well-acted manner, and even those with more than a passing knowledge of the events will find plenty to like here.