The Magazine

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.