Thirteen Days (film)
The film is set during the two-week Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962, and it centers on how President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and others handled the explosive situation.
Thirteen Days is a 2000 docudrama directed by Roger Donaldson about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, seen from the perspective of the US political leadership. Kevin Costner stars, with Bruce Greenwood featured as John F. Kennedy.
While the movie carries the same name as the book Thirteen Days by former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, it is in fact based on a different book, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. It is the second docudrama made about the crisis, the first being 1974’s The Missiles of October, which was based on Kennedy’s book. The 2000 film contains some newly declassified information not available to the earlier production, but takes greater dramatic license, particularly in its choice of Kenneth O’Donnell as protagonist.
In October 1962, U-2 surveillance photos reveal that the Soviet Union is in the process of placing missiles carrying nuclear weapons in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy(Bruce Greenwood) and his advisers must come up with a plan of action to prevent their activation. Kennedy is determined to show that the United States will not allow a missile threat. The Joint Chiefs of Staff advise immediate U.S. military strikes against the missile sites followed by an invasion of Cuba. However, Kennedy is reluctant to attack and invade because it would very likely cause the Soviets to invade Berlin. Citing The Guns of August, Kennedy sees an analogy to the events that started World War I, where the tactics of both sides commanders had not evolved since the previous war and were obsolete, only this time nuclear weapons are involved. War appears to be almost inevitable.
The Kennedy administration tries to find a solution that will remove the missiles but avoid an act of war. They settle on a step less than a blockade, which is formally regarded as an act of war. They settle on what they publicly describe as a quarantine. They announce that the U.S. Naval forces will stop all ships entering Cuban waters and inspect them to verify they are not carrying weapons destined for Cuba. The Soviet Union sends mixed messages in response. John A. Scali, a reporter with ABC News, is contacted by Soviet “emissary” Aleksandr Fomin (Boris Lee Krutonog), and through this back-channel communication method the Soviets offer to remove the missiles in exchange for public assurances from the U.S. that it will never invade Cuba.
A long message in the same tone as the informal communication from Fomin, apparently written personally by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, is received. This is followed by a second, more hard line cable in which the Soviets offer a deal involving U.S removal of its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The Kennedy administration interprets the second as a response from the Politburo, and in a risky act, decides to ignore it and respond to the first message, assumed to be from Khrushchev. There are several mis-steps during the crisis: the defense readiness level of Strategic Air Command (SAC) is raised to DEFCON 2 (one step shy of maximum readiness for imminent war), without informing the President; a nuclear weapon test proceeds (Bluegill Triple Prime) and a routine test launch of a U.S. offensive missile is also carried out without the President’s knowledge.
After much deliberation with the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, Kennedy secretly agrees to remove all Jupitermissiles from southern Italy and in Turkey, the latter on the border of the Soviet Union, in exchange for Khrushchev removing all missiles in Cuba. Off the shores of Cuba, the Soviet ships turn back from the quarantine lines. Secretary of State Dean Rusk (Henry Strozier) says, “We’re eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.” The film ends as O’Donnell and his family are getting ready to go to church but is called to the White House just moments before leaving for church.
The film was co-produced by several companies, including New Line Cinema, Costner’s Tig Productions and Armyan Bernstein’sBeacon Pictures. The Department of Defense cooperated to some extent, allowing the producers to film on several bases. In order to keep the film “in period” filming took place on ships from the time of the crisis that still exist in the active fleet (USS Enterprise), and ships preserved as museums (USS Joseph P. Kennedy). Aircraft (both a preserved F-8 Crusader and Lockheed U-2 spyplane were featured) that still exist from the period were refurbished to appear operational as well.
The film was given a limited release in late December 2000, but wide release did not occur until January 2001, with a staggered release to various countries throughout most of the year.
The film holds a 83% film rating on Rotten Tomatoes making the film strongly critically successful, indicating it was generally well liked. The film was less successful financially, grossing $66,579,890 worldwide, against an $80 million budget.
The Missile Crisis was first publicly dramatized in the 1974 made-for-television play The Missiles of October. Thirteen Days portrays some incidents based on newly declassified information not available in the earlier work. In an interview provided on the DVD version, the director touts the meticulous attention to historical accuracy of Thirteen Days.
However, several still-living (as of the film’s release) Kennedy administration officials and contemporary historians, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Special Counsel Ted Sorensen, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, have criticized the film for the depiction of Special Assistant Kenneth O’Donnell as chief motivator of Kennedy and others during the crisis. McNamara reacted in a PBS NewsHour interview:
According to McNamara, the duties performed by O’Donnell in the film are closer to the role Sorensen played during the actual crisis: “It was not Kenny O’Donnell who pulled us all together—it was Ted Sorensen.”
In the book Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, Matthew Alford criticises the film for side-lining “the real-world Kennedy administration’s preoccupation with launching secret attacks, including an attempted invasion, against Cuba, which persisted into the crisis and beyond.”