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Costner, Cuba, and the Kennedys

Hollywood takes a stab at the Cuban missile crisis -- and almost gets it right

Jan 1, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 16 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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The Cuban missile crisis is the closest the human race has come to Armageddon. Oddly though, like the moon landing -- another 1960s event of millennial importance -- it has faded from our historical imagination. For a new generation, its gravity is unappreciated. Thirteen Days, the new Kevin Costner docudrama about to open in theaters, tries to remedy that deficit. It does it so well in so many ways that one can only regret that in the end it fails.


It fails because it tells a lie. Ironically, the lie is not central to the story. But it is a lie nonetheless. As we have learned during the last eight years, the gratuitous lie can be the most maddening of all, precisely because it is unnecessary: The lie in Thirteen Days is ideological -- and thus typically Hollywood. For those who can look past it, the movie is quite satisfying. For those who can't, the film is ruined.


What's right about the film is its technique. Thirteen Days quite brilliantly creates drama out of mere meetings, phone calls, and deep thinks. Two and a half hours of mostly talking heads is not the usual formula for riveting entertainment. But here it works because of the material: thirteen days of unimaginable tension, from the first discovery of U-2 evidence of Soviet medium-range missiles in Cuba to the secret Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement to dismantle obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey.


The public quid pro quo was that the Americans would not invade Cuba, in return for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. In the end, however, Kennedy added the Turkish concession. (Historically, if not filmically, it appears that Khrushchev might have settled without it.) It was not a deal Kennedy wished to tout. The administration and the participants managed to deny it for twenty years. Indeed, in order to obscure the link further, the Turkish withdrawal did not take place for six months after Khrushchev withdrew his missiles from Cuba.


Filmmaker Roger Donaldson manages to illustrate brilliantly the essential elements of crisis, the fluidity of decision-making under crushing pressure and incomplete knowledge. Kennedy, for example, changed course several times. He was on the verge of ordering, and then decided against, attacking Soviet air defenses in Cuba. Donaldson also deftly demonstrates the role of coincidence. The more conspiratorially inclined will be disappointed to learn how much sheer happenstance and screw-up shape crises. Other parts of the government, for example, conducted routine missile testing during the crisis, and a U-2 flight inadvertently strayed over Soviet territory. Kennedy feared that these extraneous events might be misinterpreted by the Russians as aggressive signals from him.


Most of all, the film shows how historical success is a product of both genius and luck. Napoleon once said that the quality he valued most in a general was luck. Historian Graham Allison has pointed out that our great good luck in this crisis was timing. Kennedy encountered his supreme crisis in October 1962. What if it had happened in, say, April 1961? It is hard to imagine, contends Allison, that we would have had a peaceful outcome of the Cuban missile crisis had it been faced by the young untested president who authorized the Bay of Pigs. After eighteen months of experience, however -- particularly after the Bay of Pigs -- Kennedy had acquired the depth and confidence that enabled him to navigate the most fateful crisis of them all.


That was the luck. The genius occurred at the most crucial moment. With the American blockade tightening around Cuba, Kennedy received two cables from the Soviets: one conciliatory, hinting at a solution; and the second, uncompromising. The Kennedy brothers decided to simply ignore the second and respond positively to the first. That was the beginning of the way out of the abyss.


Not all the action in Thirteen Days is cerebral, however. This is Hollywood, after all. The film deftly intersperses the decision-making with a few beautifully staged action sequences of reconnaissance planes: U-2s under harrowing missile attack, more nimble jets flying dangerously low to get the pictures to bring the proof to force the issue.


So what's wrong with this picture? The problem, the perennial problem of the docudrama, is historical accuracy. The film does cover itself by saying that it is "based" on the actual Cuban missile crisis and thus does not pretend to be a historical record. Deciding one's obligation to truth is always a tricky question in this genre. In this case, there are two major deviations from historical truth. One is tolerable, the other is not.


Tolerable is the centrality of Kennedy aide Kenny O'Donnell, the character played by Kevin Costner. The O'Donnell character is preposterously expanded to become the consigliere, the fixer, the psychic counselor, and the guiding spirit of the crisis. This is a little like making Rosencrantz or Gildenstern the lead character in Hamlet: When Tom Stoppard did that, the play became a comedy.


The original idea was for O'Donnell to function as a kind of narrator, like Nick in The Great Gatsby. But while Nick is a participant in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, he is a fairly minor one as he narrates and observes. O'Donnell towers in Thirteen Days. He is the one who navigates the Kennedy brothers through the shoals. O'Donnell has to be the central character because he is played by Costner, and Costner is the box office star. He dominates Jack and Bobby in the film, the same way his face overshadows that of the Kennedy actors in the publicity photo for the picture. (Another annoyance is Costner's attempt at a Boston Irish accent. It is so thick and implausible as to make you think in the movie's opening dialogue that he is doing a Saturday Night Live parody of a Boston Brahmin.)


These dramatic failures can be tolerated. The real problem with the film is that it found it necessary to portray the American military brass, as represented in Generals Curtis LeMay and Maxwell Taylor, as unredeemed warmongers. It is historically true that they favored an attack on Cuba. But the film goes far beyond that. It shows them not only trying to cajole and bully Kennedy into war. It shows them trying to trump, even usurp, civilian authority and trap Kennedy -- force him into a war against his will -- by sending reconnaissance planes low over Cuba for the purpose of getting them shot down, thus creating irresistible pressure on Kennedy to counterattack.


This would be bad enough. But in a typical Hollywood act of moral equivalence, the movie compounds the travesty by making "moderate" Russians into good guys. In the climactic scene, Bobby Kennedy is negotiating the final Turkish deal with the Soviet ambassador in Washington. After the deal has been struck, the sympathetically portrayed Dobrynin rises and praises the work of the "good men" who saved humanity. Clearly, the Kennedy brothers and O'Donnell and Dobrynin and Khrushchev (who supposedly is fighting down hard-liners at his end) are the good guys. The bad guys are the shadowy Moscow hard-liners, and the Strangelovian American generals.


A plain reading of the text (as David Boies might say) would show, first, that Khrushchev recklessly started the crisis, and, second, that he backed down in the end not because he was a good guy but because he had the weaker hand. At the time, the Soviets were far inferior strategically to the United States. Moreover, he came away with a fairly good deal: a guarantee of a Communist Cuba and the removal of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey.


After a screening of the film, I asked the producer about this distortion. He explained it as "dramatic compression." You want to intensify the drama, so you shape the characters to produce dynamic tension -- in this instance, a good-guy bad-guy dynamic.


There's nothing wrong with that in principle. But when you do it in a historical context, you have an obligation to be careful about the identity of your good guys and bad guys. If you wanted that kind of dichotomy in this movie, the solution was simple: The bad guys are Khrushchev and Castro (who doesn't play any part in the film at all, but who we know urged Khrushchev to attack the United States). They invented the Cuban missile crisis.


It is not as if dramatic compression is not permitted in films. The character presented in David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia is far different from the T. E. Lawrence who emerges from the pages of his autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But in Lean's movie, concision, simplification, and dramatic invention are in the service of psychological depth. In Thirteen Days, these devices are in the service of producing yet another set of cardboard caricatures of the usual suspects: Americans with medals on their chests.


It is unfortunate that a movie otherwise so good, about an event so important, should perpetuate so pernicious a lie about the American military. Particularly because Kevin Costner is the star. His presence inevitably connects Thirteen Days to his other docudrama, about an event that occurred just thirteen months after the Cuban missile crisis. Costner's presence here -- together with the caricature of the military as war hungry and reviling President Kennedy's weakness -- turns Thirteen Days into an ideological prequel to JFK, the egregious Oliver Stone film starring Kevin Costner. How perverse. How unnecessary.




Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.