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.

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.

With additional research by Yael Schacher.  

Jared Hohlt is an editor at New York magazine.

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