DVD Pick: Thirteen DaysReviewed by Ivana Redwine
Length: 145 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
In October of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union became embroiled in a confrontation that could easily have escalated into nuclear war. Many of the details of that confrontation, which is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, are brilliantly dramatized by the gripping docudrama Thirteen Days. The movie tells the tale solely from the point of view of the White House; the Soviet side of the story is completely omitted. But what I like best about the film is the way it shows how a group of highly intelligent men grapple with a complex and monumentally important problem.
Within the first few minutes of the film, we are introduced to Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), loving husband and father of five young children. We soon learn that O'Donnell is a senior assistant to US President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and a longtime friend of the President's brother Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp). It quickly becomes apparent that while RFK's job title is Attorney General of the United States, he actually functions as the President's right-hand man.
On Tuesday, October 16, 1962, O'Donnell is summoned by the President to look at recently taken aerial reconnaissance photographs. The photos reveal that the Soviets have moved nuclear missiles into Cuba that would be capable of killing 80 million Americans, and it is estimated that the missiles can be made operational in 10 to 14 days. To deal with this threat, the President creates a special Executive Committee (Ex-Comm) made up of senior government officials. Although there is considerable sentiment within Ex-Comm to launch air strikes against Cuba, the committee recommends a naval blockade, presumably in the belief that the milder course of action will lessen the chance of nuclear war.
The President orders the blockade, hoping it will signal to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev his intention to take stronger action later if the Soviets do not remove their missiles from Cuba. But in a quiet moment with only his inner circle of trusted confidants present, JFK voices his apprehension that even a slight miscalculation could send things spinning wildly out of control: "Say one of their ships resists the inspection and we shoot out its rudder ... They shoot down one of our planes in response. So we bomb their anti-aircraft sites in response to that, and they attack Berlin. So we invade Cuba, and they fire their missiles. And we fire ours."
One of the interesting aspects of O'Donnell's job is that he can say and do things that the President cannot, and the film gives a provocative example. At one point, O'Donnell calls up Commander Ecker (portrayed by Christopher Lawford, a nephew of both JFK and RFK), a Navy pilot who is about to make a low-level reconnaissance flight over Cuba. O'Donnell tells Ecker, "Whatever happens up there, you were not shot at." In guarded language, O'Donnell makes Ecker realize that if the President becomes aware that Ecker's plane was fired on, the President will retaliate militarily, and O'Donnell leaves it up to Ecker to conclude just how dire the consequences might be. When Ecker flies his mission, Soviet anti-aircraft units shoot dozens of holes in the wings of his plane, but he still returns safely. Later Ecker is debriefed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and when asked if he was fired on, he lies, "It was a cakewalk, sir."
As Soviet freighters approach the US warships enforcing the blockade, tension runs high. At first it appears that the Soviet ships are simply going to try to run the blockade, but then they stop and some even turn around. Back in Washington, government officials experience a momentary euphoric sense of relief, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk quips, "We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."
Keenly aware of the importance of world opinion, the Kennedy administration uses a televised United Nations meeting to gain sympathy for the American position. In that meeting, US Ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson asks the Soviet Ambassador, "Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles in sites in Cuba? Yes or no?" The Soviet Ambassador makes some rambling statements, but fails to answer Stevenson's question, prompting Stevenson to say, "I'm prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over!" The American delegation then presents to the United Nations the photographic evidence of the Soviet missiles in Cuba.