Directed by Roger Donaldson. 2000.

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Abraham Lincoln said in 1858 that “a house divided upon itself cannot stand”. This prophecy almost came true during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 as President John F. Kennedy fought to avert war in Cuba against the determined opposition of his own military and Intelligence advisors. Dramatized in Roger Donaldson’s powerful Thirteen Days, the entire world teetered on the brink of nuclear Armageddon for thirteen anxiety-filled days as the internal and external pressures mounted on both the President and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to keep the world from nuclear immolation.  

Thirteen Days stars Kevin Costner as Presidential Aide Kenneth O’Donnell, Bruce Greenwood as JFK, Steven Culp as Bobby, and Dylan Baker as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and is based on the book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow. When a U-2 flyover discovered two dozen SS-4 nuclear missiles in Cuba pointing to the United States, American leaders had a very short window of time before the missiles became operational to find a way to remove them. Kennedy, who until this time had tried to placate both the right and the left, was faced with severely limited options.  

Though different courses of action were discussed, the administration never questioned the underlying assumptions of the Cold War or the premise that the weapons were offensive rather than defensive and the film does not mention or discuss previous U.S. attempts to destabilize Cuba. With the CIA and the Pentagon calling for air strikes followed by a ground invasion, Kennedy knew that he could not afford to look weak or back down in face of the presumed Soviet threat. On the other hand, he was profoundly aware that an invasion would be met with Russian retaliation and probable nuclear war. His ultimate decision to order a naval blockade and a quarantine of Russian ships headed toward Cuba carrying offensive weapons was opposed by virtually Kennedy’s entire national security apparatus.  

The film shows the bluster of Joint Chiefs Chairman, Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich), Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway), Chief of Naval Operations, George Anderson (Madison Mason) and other military leaders clamoring for an aggressive response. After a meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Kennedy said to O’Donnell, “These brass hats have one advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.” The conflict with the military and the CIA over how to handle Cuba would continue to dog Mr. Kennedy throughout his presidency and his overtures for rapprochement with Castro may have been a determining factor in his assassination.  

The film describes in detail the confusing Soviet response to JFK’s quarantine demands and the meeting between Bobby and Soviet Ambassador Andrei Dobrynin (Elya Baskin) is the dramatic high point of the film. Also vital is the crucial role played by UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman) in first proposing a diplomatic solution and in his strong defense of the U.S. position at the U.N. in confrontation with Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin (Oleg Vidov), much to the surprise of the Kennedy brothers who had decided he was “weak”.  

Thirteen Days unfolds through the eyes of Ken O’Donnell (Costner) and centers on his role in providing counsel and encouragement to Kennedy, though his role is vastly overstated. Costner is adequate in the role though he is a wooden actor and his attempt at a New England accent becomes increasingly irritating. Both Greenwood and Culp have the Kennedy’s manner of speech and body language down pat but give very little hint of the Kennedy charm, wit, strength, charisma, or overriding self-confidence. Regardless of its flaws however, the film is an absolutely fascinating portrayal of a pivotal time in history and an important reminder of the tenuous thread that holds our civilization together and how quickly it can be shattered.  

As Kennedy reminded us in his speech at American University on June 10, 1963 quoted in the film, a speech that challenged Americans and Russians to rethink their attitudes toward each other, “We all inhabit this small planet”, he said, “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” It was a speech that has even more relevance today and the need to eliminate nuclear weapons is more urgent than ever. 


Howard Schumann
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