Zelikow says that O'Donnell was as close to the Kennedys as the movie suggests. (Among other things, he'd played football with RFK at Harvard, where he was captain of the team.) But his "Irish Mafia" standing aside, what role did he have in the Cuban Missile Crisis?
The real O'Donnell barely makes a cameo appearance in the exhaustive tapes. As Sheldon M. Stern, who retired in 1999 after 23 years as a historian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, puts it: "O'Donnell said two words at one meeting." Still, whether he spoke or not, O'Donnell did attend some crisis meetings, and the movie—to its credit—doesn't make him a loquacious participant when depicting the gatherings.
Behind the scenes, Costner's O'Donnell is a bona fide player. At one point, for example, the Oval Office door has barely closed when he is the first to warn JFK that the U.S. military is trying to start a war over the missile situation—a dramatic exchange that is completely unverifiable. Stern, who has not seen the movie, says, "Knowing the way JFK operated, there's no question in my mind that he would have talked to Kenny O'Donnell about things." But he adds, "There's nothing on the record."
Certainly, O'Donnell, who worked as Kennedy's appointments secretary, had power. In a rather puffy April 1963 Wall Street Journal article, one " New Frontiersman" says, "You can make your list of the most important advisers as short as you want, and Kenny still would be on the list." And another "White House colleague" declares, "The President thinks aloud a lot, and Kenny is the guy who most often thinks aloud with him." But in a recent Boston Globe interview, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who read an early script of Thirteen Days and who consulted on the film with former Kennedy assistant Theodore Sorensen, said, "Ted saw the film and told me it was Kenny O'Donnell saving the world. Now, Kenny was an admirable man, but he had nothing to do with the Cuban Missile Crisis."
In what is arguably the film's most egregiously fictitious scene, Costner's O'Donnell calls an Air Force pilot who is about to undertake a risky low-level surveillance flight over Cuba and tells him "not to get shot." Mechanical failures are OK, O'Donnell tells the disbelieving pilot, mountain crashes are fine. Just don't get shot.
In Thirteen Days, both O'Donnell and the president fear that a shot pilot would prompt the generals to start a war. In the film, the pilot's plane is fired on, but he later lies to LeMay (again, on O'Donnell's instructions), telling him the mission was a "cakewalk." In life, the surveillance plane did take some flak—and, as the film later shows, a U-2 plane was brought down by a surface-to-air missile. But O'Donnell made no such call, and nobody pulled the wool over the generals' eyes.
At another point, Costner's O'Donnell learns via Stevenson that the New York Times is going to print a story about the missiles in Cuba, and he quickly alerts the president. The concern is that this story will run before Kennedy can address the nation, which he did on Oct. 22. In life, it was the president's press secretary, Pierre Salinger—played as rather out-of-the-loop in the movie—who told him that the press in general would soon have the story. In the movie, JFK calls the publisher of the Times and persuades him to hold his explosive scoop. In life, he called the publishers of both the Times and the Washington Post. And the Times, in fact, was alerted to the story through his call.
And in the movie, O'Donnell calls Stevenson and tells him to "stick it to" Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin (Oleg Vidov) in the United Nations. Stevenson goes on to deliver his famous I'll-wait-for-your-answer-on-whether-missiles-are-in-Cuba-until-hell-freezes-over speech, but it's unlikely that O'Donnell ever instructed him to be so uncharacteristically tough. Stern says the two men "despised" each other.
Finally, viewers may be moved to wonder: Was it really necessary to show a "red phone" in O'Donnell's dining room?
Ultimately, it's JFK, with help from Bobby and the others, who really saves the day, and the movie can be forgiven for highlighting the Kennedys' finest hours. But the film neglects to dramatize how the crisis was instigated not by the missiles but by Khrushchev's lies. According to The Kennedy Tapes, had Khrushchev privately told the president that he planned to "base IRBMs [intermediate-range ballistic missiles] in Cuba … conceivably there might have been no crisis at all. In the second meeting [of his advisers] on October 16, Kennedy said, 'Last month I should have said that we don't care.' "
Viewers won't leave theaters with a terribly skewed perspective of the crisis. But after having seen the White House vaporized in Independence Day, will they warm to a movie in which the protagonists talk and take very little action? As Professor Zelikow says, admiringly, "The filmmakers decided to spend $80 million on a film in which the hero wins by not shooting anybody." These days, such a decision is—to borrow Kennedy's words from October '62—one hell of a gamble.