Growing up along what the north-eastern U.S. refers to as “the Niagara Frontier”, I saw a lot of unsettling things on TV in the early 60s. While people were building bomb shelters in their backyards, practice warning sirens of military attacks came over the U.S. airwaves (TV & radio) regularly along with the station symbol and an advisory to go to a safe place, and have a radio for further updates. We watched the election of the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, saw him accept responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and held our collective breathe while Russia and the U.S. faced each other down over the installation of nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, 90 miles off the tip of Florida. If we thought we were tense, sitting in our homes watching some of the story unfold on our TV sets, it had to be nothing compared to what was going on behind the scenes in Washington, D.C. and the United Nations in New York City.
If you want to get a feel for the history and the people involved in the decision-making process, Thirteen Days is the movie to watch. As much as they may play fast and loose with some of the details (O’Donnell really had nothing to do with advising the President and the Attorney General on the crisis), the movie is still worth watching. (If you want a really clear analysis of truth in the movie, visit the site of Michael Nelson, Political Science Professor, Rhodes College.)
The story, told from the perspective of Appointments Secretary Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), begins with President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) receiving photos taken from the air over Cuba showing nuclear missiles being installed in various places throughout the island, setting the scene for the US and Soviet Union coming to the brink of nuclear war. Steven Culp plays Robert Kennedy to a “T” and we are given a rare glimpse into the tension between the Kennedys and their ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), between them and the leaders of the military establishment, and the marginalization of VP Lyndon Johnson.
All kinds of scenarios are developed, with the military pushing for action, diplomats pressing for political maneuvering, and a wrong decision one way or the other could start a nuclear war. Secret communications from Premier Khrushchev, a journalist go-between with a Russian spy, tense exchanges on the floor of the U.N., will be reminiscent of episodes in the West Wing TV series that many probably didn’t realize were based on real events.
There is great acting in this movie, brilliant photography, and palpable tension throughout. It’s a movie guaranteed to send you to history books and biographies to learn more about the actual history. It’s a movie guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat — like we were, sitting in front of our TVs in October, 1962. * * * *