Directed By: Roger Donaldson
Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Shawn Driscoll
Tag line: "You'll Never Believe How Close We Came"
Trivia: This was the fFirst film to be screened at the White House by newly-elected President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, a screening also attended by several members of the Kennedy family.
Years ago, I read an excellent book titled Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words, which featured a series of interviews with the former Attorney General in which he talked, frankly, about everything from his tense relationship with FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover to the events of Nov. 22, 1963, when his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Intended as an oral history of the Kennedy Administration, RFK also discussed, at length, the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-dsy standoff that began when a U.S. spy plane detected several Soviet nuclear missile sites under construction on the nearby island of Cuba. Thirteen Days, a 2000 movie directed by Roger Donaldson, takes a closer look at this crisis, and in so doing reveals just how close we came to an all-out nuclear war.
Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), a longtime friend and confidant of Pres. John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp), works as a special Secretary to the President, a position that gives him access to many top-level meetings. In October of 1962, President Kennedy and his cabinet, along with the country’s top military leaders, learn that the Soviet Union is building several short-range nuclear missile sites in Cuba, which, when operational, will give them the ability to attack almost anywhere in the Continental United States. Agreeing they cannot allow these bases to exist so close to U.S. soil, Kennedy and his advisors discuss several options. The military, led by Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich) and Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway), recommend invading Cuba, while others in the organization favor more diplomatic solutions, including a naval blockade of the island, which would prevent all future shipments of weapons. But with time running out before the missiles are fully operational, President Kennedy must quickly decide on a course of action, or risk exposing the United States to the possibility of nuclear annihilation.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Thirteen Days is its ability to build suspense around a well-known historical event. Throughout the film, we sit in on a number of key conversations between the Kennedy brothers and O’Donnell, during which they try to come up with a way to get the missiles out of Cuba without resorting to an all-out invasion, which the military is pushing for (the Generals even try to manipulate the situation by flying missions over Cuba, believing that, if a U.S. plane were shot down, the President would have no alternative but to issue the invasion order). Despite the fact a good portion of the movie takes place in conference rooms, Thirteen Days generates quite a bit of tension, a real accomplishment when you consider that almost everyone in the audience knows beforehand how it’s going to end.
Though it suffers a little in the authenticity department (Costner’s Massachusetts accent definitely leaves something to be desired) and may not be the most accurate account of what transpired (several people, including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera, have stated that Kenny O’Donnell was nothing more than a personal secretary, and had no role whatsoever in the decision-making process), Thirteen Days, thanks to its marvelous performances and smart, well-written script, is a tremendously engaging historical drama.