Thirteen Days (2001)
Director: Roger Donaldson.
Cast: Kevin Costner (Kenny O'Donnell), Bruce Greenwood (John F. Kennedy), Steven Culp (Robert F. Kennedy), Dylan Baker (Robert McNamara), Henry Strozier (Dean Rusk), Frank Wood (McGeorge Bundy), Michael Fairman (Adlai Stevenson), Len Cariou (Dean Acheson), Janet Coleman (Evelyn Lincoln), Stephanie Romanov (Jacqueline Kennedy), Bill Smitrovich (General Maxwell Taylor), Ed Lauter (General Marshall Carter), Dakin Matthews (Arthur Lundhal), Walter Adrian (Lyndon Johnson), Peter White (John McCone), Tim Kelleher (Ted Sorensen), James Karen (George Ball), Daniel Ziskie (General Walter "Cam" Sweeney), Kevin Conway (General Curtis LeMay), Kelly Connell (Pierre Salinger), Olek Krupa (Andrei Gromyko), Elya Baskin (Anatoly Dobrinyn), Bruce Thomas (Floyd), Jack McGee (Mayor Daly).
The Cuban Missile Crisis. 1962 October 16 -- the crisis begins when U.S. surveillance photos detect Russian-built missiles in Cuba. Kennedy and his advisers are filled with trepidation about a nuclear show-down with the Soviet Union over the issue.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Kenneth P. O’Donnell is the chief of staff for President Kennedy. He is very close with John F. and Bobby F. Kennedy. At one time he was the Harvard quarterback.
A group with McGeorge Bundy, National Security Adviser, are checking pictures of different Soviet missiles. They find the one they were looking for: a surface to surface SS-4 Sandal missile. Bundy tells O’Donnell that they need to talk to the president right now. The news they bring to the president is that the Soviets are putting missiles on the island of Cuba. The president asks where his brother Bobby is. The missiles will be able to reach Washington D.C. The men worry that this represents a shift in Soviet policy to a first-strike approach.
Some of the staff around Kennedy include Ted Sorenson, Special Counsel to the President; Dean Rusk, Secretary of State; and Robert MacNamara, Secretary of State. The consensus is: "We have to get those missiles out." Pierre Salinger, dealing with the press, is not to be told what is going on in the White House. They just don’t want the press to know about the situation.
George Ball has a conference room at State that can be used. The call for the veteran statesman Dean Acheson goes out. The military speaking through the Joint Chiefs of Staff discuss the military situation. There are some 850 airplanes available to strike Cuba. They push for a massive air strike followed by an invasion of Cuba. Dean Acheson, instead of being cautious, concurs with General Maxwell Taylor, that the military option is the best. If the Soviet Union responds in Berlin, then the use of nuclear weapons must be considered.
Following the meeting, the president says that Acheson’s plan is not acceptable. The feeling is that they just cannot let this situation get out of hand. The military, on the other hand, being very macho and war-like, consider the Kennedys as weak, rich boys. Many feel that the Kennedys are just not up to the job.
Wednesday October 17.
Kennedy tells O’Donnell to cancel his trip to Connecticut. But O’Donnell insists that he must carry on as normal in order not to tip off the press. Bobby Kennedy meets with the staff to discuss the option in greater depth. The military still pushes for the military solution, but Bobby says that there has just go to be something else, because air strikes will lead to something else. And, in fact, there is an alternative: a blockade of Cuba.
Thursday October 18.
There are some 40 missiles in Cuba and they have a much longer range than thought. They can hit everywhere except Seattle. But the Kennedys still insist that there has got to be something else. But this way of thinking is difficult for the military to understand. General Curtis LeMay of the Air Force pushes the military option. There will be eight days of bombing. He adds: "We’re ready." He comments further that the blockade is a weak response and that the president is in a pretty bad fix. Kennedy reminds everyone that they are all in this together and that they are all in a pretty bad fix. After the meeting, LeMay comments that the "Kennedys are going to destroy this country."
Pierre Salinger wants to know what is going on. But he has to be kept out of the loop.
On the telephone Kennedy talks with Griminko who tells him that there are no offensive weapons in Cuba. Following the call, Kennedy calls the Russian a "lying bastard". The president tells O’Donnell to cancel the visit with Mayor Daly in Chicago. O’Donnell says that he is not going to cancel on the powerful Daly. The president says he will call Daly himself and speak to him. O’Donnell looks very skeptical. The next scene is of Kennedy in Chicago with Daly.
Friday October 19.
Pierre Salinger wants to know the purpose of massive troop movements taking place in Florida. He asks: "Am I out of the loop?" A newsman suggests that the United States is going to invade Cuba. O’Donnell is furious and threatens the newsman about pushing forward this "wrong" idea.
Saturday October 20.
The idea of the blockade is approved. There are some 20-30 Soviet ships heading to Cuba. They will be stopped some 800 miles out. They will be boarded and a check will be made for missiles.
Ambassador Adlai Stevenson raises the idea of striking a deal with the Soviets. The United States could take out their missiles from Turkey if the Soviets will take theirs out of Cuba. But the idea is emphatically rejected.
Kennedy asks for air time on Monday night. Time is of the essence because several reporters have the story. A call is made to an editor to hold the story.
Sunday October 21.
General LeMay says that the Air Force will be able to destroy 90% percent of the missiles. The decision is made to go to DEF Con 3. Kennedy is upset with congress saying that they are trying to second guess him into World War III.
Monday October 22.
Kennedy goes on television to speak of the Soviet military build-up in Cuba.
Tuesday October 23.
The president gets a Soviet response. It is just a lot of empty talk about the importance of freedom of the seas. The feeling is that it is all just "horseshit".
Twenty-six Soviet ships are inbound to Cuba. Kennedy personally speaks with the naval commander facing the first Soviet freighters. The order is: "No shooting without my explicit order." This is a necessary command because the Joint Chiefs of staff want to go into Cuba to make up for the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy is encouraged not to accept the military’s rules of engagement because of the possibility that if followed they would lead to military confrontation and war.
O’Donnell personally calls Commander Ecker who is in charge of the coming overflight of the missile sites. The order is that "You are not to get shot down under any circumstances." The low flight is made over Cuba and Commander Ecker’s plane is hit multiple times by ground fire. Back in the United States, Ecker tells those examining the bullet holes that they are "bird strikes". Ecker personally delivers the developed film to the military higher ups. General LeMay wants primarily to know if the commander was fired upon. Ecker simply responds: "It was a cakewalk, sir,"
The Organization of American States gives unanimous support for the blockade. Kennedy tells his staff that the quarantine of Cuba will begin at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. There is a great deal of worry in the American public.
Wednesday October 24.
It’s blockade time. Two freighters are nearing the quarantine line. Accompanying them is a Soviet submarine. The men on the USS Pierce are called to battle stations. Permission is given to force the submarine up. Then the order is given to prepare to fire torpedoes. From aircraft carriers planes are launched.
Then all of a sudden the Soviet ships stop. The order "hold your fire" is given. The Soviet ships are turning around. There is great happiness among the Kennedy staffers. However, there are six other Soviet ships heading for Cuba.
Kennedy is furious when he learns that US nuclear weapons have been placed at DEF CON 2. He tells General Taylor that he has signaled an intent to escalate to the Soviets: "You signaled an escalation I had no wish to signal and of which I did not approve." Bobby is also furious with the military, but O’Donnell calms him with the statement" "You can’t fire the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Bobby."
Thursday, October 25.
The idea of trading missiles in Turkey for missiles in Cuba has gotten out. O’Donnell is furious about this trial balloon that the Kennedys have raised. He reminds the brothers that it cannot be known that the United States will sell out one of its friends for their own safety. Kennedy tells O’Donnell to call U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson to tell him to stick it to the Soviets. They are, however, worried that Adlai will be too weak for the job.
At the U.N. the Soviets say that the United States is pushing the entire world to the brink of catastrophe. Furthermore, the US has no evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The Americans are simply mistaken.
O’Donnell, still worried about Stevenson, gives the order to ready one of the staffers to replace the man. Stevenson makes it clear to the Soviets that the US wants an answer of yes or no on the existence of missiles in Cuba. The Soviet ambassador’s response is: "You’ll get your answer in due course. Don’t worry." There is laughter. Stevenson responds with: "I’m prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over." Furthermore, the Soviet Union has lied to the world. And then Stevenson starts showing the aerial photographs of the missile sites. There is great jubilation in the White House over Stevenson’s forceful presentation.
The USS Pierce again faces Soviet freighters. The order is given to fire star shells (blanks) over the freighters. MacNamara is furious, thinking the Pierce has fired on the freighters. The admiral explains the real situation. But MacNamara stays mad and asks the admiral: "What if the Soviets make the same mistake I made?" He adds that the admiral does not understand a thing. The actions of the Navy are part of a special language to the Soviets. The US is communicating with the Soviets by being very cautious.
A back channel seems to be being used by Kruschev. O’Donnell and staff check out the Soviet spy being used. They discover that Kruschev and the top Soviet spy in the United States are old war buddies. They consider the back channel legitimate. Contact is made and the message given that the United States is being very cautious in their approach to this crisis and they hope that Kruschev will take the same attitude.
Saturday October 27.
Analysis of the first message indicates that it was written by Kruschev himself. O’Donnell feels more relaxed now and he goes home to see his wife and children. But almost as soon as he is home, O’Donnell gets a call from Bobby. Another Soviet message has come in. The first message was just a ploy; a trick to stall for time. O’Donnell returns to the White House. The speculation is that there has been a coup in the Soviet Union or that the hard liners in the Soviet Union have co-opted Kruschev.
News arrives that the Soviet crews are rushing the missiles into operation. The reaction to this is the conclusion that now there is no choice. Air strikes are set for Monday morning followed by an invasion of Cuba.
Major Anderson is going to make a photography flight over Cuba. Again, the order is given not to get shot down. But over Cuba, a number of air missiles are launched at the plane. Anderson is able to dodge a couple of them, but then is hit by another. The plane breaks apart and Anderson dies.
The military sees this as an intentional escalation on the part of the Soviets. But Kennedy remains firm. He wants confirmation that it was not an accident.
Kennedy wants to make the deal in Turkey. O’Donnell again expresses his opposition to the idea. He asks: "What if there hasn’t been a coup?" The president cites the book The Guns of August as a caution. The nations of Europe went to war through a series of small accidents and mis-communications that made things appear far worse than they were.
The president tells Bobby that he has the job of heading over to the Soviet embassy to tell Anatoly Dobrinyn. O’Donnell replaces the chauffeur as driver for Bobby. He praises Bobby to be supportive and to increase his self-confidence that he can strike the exact tone necessary to communicate the seriousness of the situation to Dobrinyn. At the embassy they see a great deal of smoke coming out of the embassy chimney. They are burning their documents. "They think we’re going to war" is the conclusion.
In the meeting, Bobby tells Dobrinyn that if they remove the missiles from Cuba, the president will give private assurance that the out-dated Jupiter missiles will be taken out of Turkey within six months. If, however, the Soviets make this public, the US will deny it. Bobby then makes it clear to Dobrinyn that he needs an answer by the next day. As Dobrinyn prepares to leave he tells Bobby that he is a good man and that let’s hope that the will of good men can prevent war.
The message from the Soviet Union is that urgent measures are needed to ensure world peace. The missiles will be coming out. President Kennedy is very, very relieved.
The staff is also very relieved and very happy. Kennedy tells them not to gloat for "it was just as much a victory for them as for us." Later he dictates a letter of condolence to the wife of Major Anderson, shot down over Cuba.
The brothers are relaxing outside the White House. The president holds a football. He shouts to O’Donnell: "Ken, we’re out here."
I can still remember the atmosphere of this event. My father was in Marine aviation at the air station in Jacksonville, Florida and the base was on alert, which was a general feeling of threat for me. After all, the baby boom was brought up on atom bomb air raid drills (hiding under your school desk and lining up for a real bus in a pretend drill). And I can remember my fellow student in high school asking me resignedly "Will we still be here tomorrow?" I think my response was "I don't know."
What was interesting in the film was how the military was a very negative force encouraging war. The military considered the Kennedys as weaklings without the fiber to oppose the Soviets. Thank good civilians run the military and that the Kennedys stood up to their fervent calls for military action. Congratulations to the Kennedy brothers and the Kennedy staff for being extremely cautious in this matter, despite advice to the contrary.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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