October Sky

What really happened.
Dec. 29 2000 8:30 PM

October Sky

How close does Thirteen Days come to telling the true story of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis? 

(Note: "Life and Art" is an occasional column that compares fiction, in various media, with the real-life facts on which it is ostensibly based.)

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Thirteen Days, Kevin Costner's new film about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, comes with its own checkered history. It passed through three studios and eight directors before being made by Roger Donaldson. And media reports suggest that its makers may have distorted the missile-crisis history by making Special Assistant to the President Kenny O'Donnell (Costner) the story's central character. Stirring those speculations was an Inside.com piece that reported that the late O'Donnell's son, Kevin, helped bankroll Thirteen Days. As the article noted, it didn't help Thirteen Days' reputation that Costner starred in Oliver Stone's fact-bending JFK. Nor that co-producer Armyan Bernstein also co-produced the controversial, factually challenged bio-pic The Hurricane, about boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

How does the film, which started a limited release at Christmas to qualify for the Oscars, stack up against the record?

While there will no doubt be some gripes about made-up scenes (some involving O'Donnell), narrative streamlining, and Costner's subtle-as-a-bullhorn Boston Irish brogue, Thirteen Days doesn't rewrite history. And O'Donnell doesn't upstage President John F. Kennedy or his brother Robert F. Kennedy.

In the film, as in life, the White House learns of the deployment of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba on Oct. 16, 1962, from photos taken by U-2 spy planes. The photos indicate that just one month earlier, Nikita Khrushchev's government had lied about the military situation on the island, claiming that only defensive weapons had been sent there. Kennedy had publicly responded that if this were not so, the "gravest" issues would arise.

The administration hopes to avoid nuclear war and to have the missiles removed. Ensuing White House debates are shaped by past events such as Munich (demonstrating the dangers of appeasement) and the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle (demonstrating the dangers of poor military planning and the perils of invading Cuba), as well as concerns over how the crisis affects the Cold War power struggle in Berlin. The movie does not dramatize deliberations in Moscow or Havana, remaining focused on Washington.

Kennedy must contend not only with the Russian threat, but also with deep mistrust between the "hawks" and "doves" advising him. The hawks are epitomized in the film by Gen. Curtis E. LeMay (Kevin Conway), who talks of "red dogs" and "getting the bastards," the doves by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), who is seen as potentially too weak to handle negotiations with the Soviets at the United Nations. These portraits are broad, but not unfair.

Ultimately, the doves win. While the Joint Chiefs of Staff push for airstrikes on the Cuban missile sites, possibly coupled with an invasion, the president decides on a naval blockade. And a secret deal—in which the U.S.S.R. agrees to remove its missiles from Cuba if the United States does the same with its missiles in Turkey at a later date—defuses the crisis at the end of October.

One of the credited sources for the script by David Self is The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis—a collection of transcripts of the deliberations, which were being secretly tape-recorded by the president. Kennedy Tapes co-editor Philip D. Zelikow, who was not involved in the making of the movie, notes that anyone who's read a couple of books on the crisis will be able to poke holes in the film's rendition of events and characters. He himself has "hundreds of quibbles," not least of which is that McGeorge Bundy (Frank Wood), Kennedy's special assistant on national security affairs, comes across as "youthful and callow" in the film, whereas in life he was marked by a "dry wit."

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But Zelikow argues that Thirteen Days meets three important historical standards for a film: 1) "The narrative is sound, the chronology is sound." The film won't do any historical "injury" to its viewers. 2) "Do [the filmmakers] get the big personalities right? I think yes, particularly the Kennedy brothers." (JFK is played by Bruce Greenwood, RFK by Steven Culp.) 3) The movie does a good job with the "atmosphere." It "makes the cold war come alive." Viewers, for example, struggle along with JFK to figure out exactly what Khrushchev was thinking.