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
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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.