Thirteen Days (2000), starring Kevin Costner and directed by Roger Donaldson, is a film that chronicles the decision-making of President Kennedy and his EXCOMM during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film focuses on Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and White House aide Kenneth O’Donnell. The film used the transcripts of EXCOMM’s deliberations as the basis for its script. In 2000-1, the Belfer Center partnered with the makers of Thirteen Days to analyze the film’s historical accuracy and efficacy at presenting the White House deliberations of how to respond to the Soviet Union.
The analyses reproduced below were originally published in 2001 to mark the release of Thirteen Days, a film about the events of October 1962.
Peter Almond (a co-producer of Thirteen Days), Graham Allison, and Ernest May (leading experts on the Cuban Missile Crisis) offer their opinions on the movie’s depiction of the Crisis.
Peter Almond (co-producer)
Thirteen Days is a dramatization inspired by some of the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis, benefiting from over a generation of scholarship, memoir writing, and journalism; it represents a perspective gained by looking back at a series of critical events that took place roughly 38 years ago. First and foremost, I would like to say that the film is not meant to be the last word, or the first word, on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, it is a kind of evocation of the great moments of this two-week period as we best understand them from today’s vantage point. Inevitably, we have been forced to compress events and, at times, even conflate the comments and functions of participants of the crisis to meet the demands of a dramatic narrative. We believe, however, that this kind of dramatic narrative imposes a responsibility upon us as filmmakers to remain faithful to the most important themes and issues which a consensus of historians and policy experts have identified as constituting the historical record.
It is difficult to establish absolute criteria for assessing dramatic interpretations of history, but at the same time it is necessary to recognize that standards do exist, and that they must be identified and served by responsible filmmakers. In the case of Thirteen Days, the writer and producers and director were so struck by the nature of the historical record itself that they felt it was unwise to range widely from it. The problem was more one of effective story telling in dramatic film narrative-distilling the powerful events and issues of the Cuban Missile Crisis in an accessible format-than it was one of manufacturing a dramatic story. The very nature of that situation-the pressure of a nuclear threat posed in the early years of the Cold War-made our job simply one of effectively conveying the intensity of that moment.
In terms of portraying historical personages and analyzing how the crisis was resolved, we needed to isolate the character traits that got people into this situation and ultimately helped them get out of it. We were inclined to stay close to the actual nature and behavior of the key people, to focus in on a small number of them, and to make the movie story as clear and easy to follow while simultaneously remaining consistent with the historical record. As a result, we studied the personalities, behavior, and positions of the President, the Attorney General, and their advisors. We tried to suggest the Russian side of the events in the appearance of Gromyko and Dobrynin, but our main focus was on the United States’ side of the calculation. We wanted the audience to watch the debate go back and forth among the civilian and military advisors and to track the decision-making process. Again, the record itself was so compelling that we didn’t think that it needed much from the filmmakers.
In terms of our hopes for the film, we want to inspire the audience to learn more about the Cuban Missile Crisis, because it contains some important lessons for today, and because it sets a standard for how we view leadership, public leadership, in the face of tremendous adversity. We have struggled to be faithful to the historical record, if inspired by it to dramatize the story, but dramatized in such a way that central themes of the crisis, the nature of leadership and its importance, the nature of the nuclear threat, the importance of judgment in the office and person of the President the United States accurately reflect the events of October of 1962. We hope that these key themes are embodied in the film and that, ideally, the audience will seek information about these important events, through web sites, testimony, transcripts, documents, and through the scholarship and various memoirs that have been produced in the years since the crisis.
Graham Allison (political scientist/historian; director of the Belfer Center)
Thirteen Days recreates for this generation of Americans much of the reality of the most dangerous moment in human history. It recalls vividly a confrontation in which nuclear war was really possible, reminding us of an enduring truth about the nuclear age. It invites viewers “into the room” as a president and his advisors struggle with a seemingly intractable problem that offers no good options. It allows the audience to experience vicariously the irreducible uncertainties, frustrating foul-ups, and paralyzing fear of failure in deciding about actions that could trigger reactions that killed 100 million fellow citizens.
The film is not a documentary. Rather, it is a dramatization. Compressing Thirteen Days into 145 minutes necessitates distortion of many specific historical facts. But the central themes of the movie and the principal “takeaways” are essentially faithful to what happened when JFK and Khrushchev stood “eyeball to eyeball” in 1962.
My book on the Missile Crisis, Essence of Decision, offers a Roshamon-like account of the actual events, highlighting ways in which the lens through which one views the facts shapes what one sees. As President John F. Kennedy observed with specific reference to the Missile Crisis: “The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself… there will always be the dark and tangled stretches in the decision-making process – mysterious even to those who may be most intimately involved.”
Co-producer Peter Almond raises the tough question about standards in cinematic dramatization. By what standards should accuracy and fidelity in Hollywood history be judged?
Thirteen Days’ dramatization gets a number of specific historical facts wrong:
- inflating O’Donnell’s role to that of elder brother of President Kennedy – stiffening the president’s spine, on the one hand, while corralling military leaders bent on war, on the other;
- caricaturing the military leadership as a war-mongering monolith;
- miniaturizing most of the other advisors, particularly Bundy, Sorenson, and Dillon.
In what Charles Krauthammer has called an “ideological lie,” the movie portrays military leaders seeking to maneuver the president into war. The image of Kevin Costner, as Kenny O’Donnell, calling pilots flying over Cuba to persuade them to lie to the chain of command for the larger good of the country is unreal.
The more important question, however, concerns the film’s central messages. How faithful is the movie to the central truths about this historical event? Here, I believe, the producers deserve high marks. They have not only attempted, but succeeded in entertaining in ways that convey messages that resonate with the central truths of the crisis.
Ernest May (historian; 1928-2009)
When I learned that Thirteen Days, the new movie dramatizing the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, would follow events through the eyes of Kenneth O’Donnell, John F. Kennedy’s appointments secretary–who would be played by the movie’s headliner, Kevin Costner–I had strong misgivings. In 1997 I had transcribed and edited (with Philip Zelikow of the University of Virginia) some of the tape recordings made secretly by JFK–and nothing in these tapes, in other documents, or in the recollections of Kennedy’s key advisers gives O’Donnell an important or even conspicuous role in the crisis.
After Harvard University Press published our transcripts as The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Beacon Communications bought the movie rights, and the film’s director, Roger Donaldson, came to see me in Cambridge. We had a long talk, and afterward someone else at Beacon sent me a copy of the script, written by David Self. “Kenny O’Donnell saves the world” was what I feared I would find.
But as it turns out, that is not the movie’s theme: Only once or twice in Thirteen Days does O’Donnell do or say anything that he might not actually have done or said. He was a long-term close associate of John and Robert Kennedy and an important figure in the White House, and the tapes do show that he attended some of the meetings concerned with the crisis. At one, he raised an important question that was then pressed insistently by JFK: Just what were U.S. naval vessels to do if they encountered a Soviet submarine? At another meeting, in a tart exchange with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, O’Donnell expressed rude contempt for General Lyman Lemnitzer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
What the filmmakers have done in their deployment of O’Donnell/Costner comes much closer to speculative historical fiction of the sort practiced by Simon Schama in Dead Certainties (a fictionalized reconstruction of an eighteenth-century murder based closely on historical fact) than to whole-cloth fantasy such as Edmund Morris’s Dutch (Morris inserted himself as an invented character in this biography of Ronald Reagan).
Still, why make O’Donnell our window on events? When I tried to think how else the producers might have pulled in a mass audience–as opposed to a PBS-documentary-sized audience–Henry James’s principle of having a single perspective on events made sense. But that perspective couldn’t easily have been JFK’s; and had it been that of a major adviser, the movie would have almost inevitably depicted him- McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, White House Counsel Ted Sorensen, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, or whomever- as the person who “saved the world.” O’Donnell was a reasonable choice, for he was in a position to see much or all of what went on, but was not a policy contestant or even a person particularly sophisticated on the issues; he was an inside Everyman, evaluating the crisis almost as an ordinary citizen would.
There are two ways to look at this movie: as a thriller and as a history. In my opinion, Thirteen Days succeeds as a thriller. Donaldson also directed Costner in No Way Out, which was a hard movie to walk out on. Thirteen Days is many times more gripping. My co-author Zelikow’s 13-year-old daughter joined us at the prescreening, never left the edge of her seat, and said afterward, wide-eyed, “I’m going to read your book!”
No doubt with just this sort of reaction in mind, Harvard University Press has to my bemused surprise put a new cover on the paperback of The Kennedy Tapes, replacing a black-and-white picture of the real JFK with a billboard photograph of Thirteen Days stars Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Culp. The film rights were an outright sale, so the movie’s success or failure has no effect on my bank account –unless it produces a spike in sales of the book, which is clearly what my publisher is aiming for in changing the cover. (This means that when I say I like the movie, the reader is entitled to wonder if my subconscious mind is counting royalties. I should also add that after I read the script, I sent the director some suggestions, and in October 1999 Zelikow and I and a number of others were invited to a prescreening in Washington, D.C. But there was never any fee paid for my consultation or even any travel- expense reimbursement.)
But does the movie succeed as a history? My verdict on its accuracy is mixed. The movie skews many small points and a few large ones. In most instances, these discrepancies are simply the result of squeezing into a two-hour film a 13-day crisis that had major turns more than once every half-hour. But two aspects of the movie grossly distort reality.
First, with the exception of Robert Kennedy, the advisers assembled around the president neither develop as characters in their own right nor even resemble the real-life men. Bundy is the worst example. In actuality a man of glittering intelligence – his ironic wit the equal of JFK’s – he appears in the film a nervous wimp. McNamara and Kennedy adviser Dean Acheson are cartoons, recognizable only in the one case by steel-rimmed glasses and a pompadour and in the other by a guardsman’s mustache.
Second, the movie misrepresents the military. The film is correct in showing high tension between the president and his uniformed advisers. The chiefs of staff unanimously recommended bombing Cuba and then following up with an invasion. And they tried to argue Kennedy out of his decision to postpone direct military action and announce a blockade so that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev could have time to consider peacefully withdrawing the nuclear missiles he had secretly and deceptively introduced into Cuba. But Thirteen Days portrays the military as trying to corner Kennedy so he’d have no choice but to do what they had recommended. This is not only unfair to the generals and admirals who served him, but it misconceives entirely the sense of duty that almost invariably motivates Americans who wear uniforms.
There are other legitimate questions about some of the filmmaking choices. Thirteen Days has no scenes in Havana or Moscow. It makes no attempt to suggest why Khrushchev decided to sneak the missiles into Cuba or, in the end, to pull them out. Aside from a young woman with frightened eyes whom O’Donnell sees at the Soviet embassy when he’s acting as Robert Kennedy’s driver, the only Russians who make appearances are diplomats or KGB officers who interact with Americans. For that matter, the only ordinary Americans in the movie are O’Donnell’s wife and children. Their anxiety has to stand for the population’s as a whole. My own conclusion is that these were not necessarily bad choices: Scenes in the Kremlin would have been distracting and would have raised questions the movie could not answer. But others may well say such omissions make the movie less true.
For me, the movie’s less-than-perfect historical faithfulness is more than offset by its presentation of three essential truths about the Missile Crisis. The first such truth is that it was a real crisis in the medical sense of involving life or death. The film manages to convey, better than any documentary or previous dramatization, the mounting risk of global catastrophe. It accurately reproduces some of the restrained but anguished debate from the secret tapes, and it intersperses extraordinarily realistic footage of Soviet missile sites being hurriedly readied in jungle clearings, of American U-2s swooping over them, and of bombers, carrier aircraft, and U.S. missiles preparing for action. Viewers who know this movie is about a real event will leave the theater shivering with the understanding of what the Cold War could have brought.
Second, Thirteen Days makes comprehensible – better than most written histories of the crisis, despite all the additional documentation and detail they’ve provided – the awful predicament that President Kennedy faced. Americans tend to write history solipsistically, as if all things good and evil are made in the U.S.A. Thus, a lot of academic histories and even memoir reconstructions of the crisis have supposed that it arose out of U.S. relations with Cuba–that it came about because of our animus toward Fidel Castro or because of the Kennedy brothers’ machismo, and that it could have been willed away by a gentler attitude toward Cuba or softer language by JFK or more willingness in 1962 to accept Soviet missiles in Cuba as counterbalancing NATO missiles in Turkey and Italy.
Thirteen Days captures the reality that is so clear in the tape transcripts: The crisis for Kennedy had very little to do with Cuba and much to do with the commitment he had inherited to protect two-and-a-half million West Berliners. Kennedy had no reason to suppose that the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 had diminished the desperate eagerness of the East German Communist regime to add these West Berliners to its imprisoned population. Quite the contrary: The Wall was one piece of evidence among many that the East Germans and their Soviet patrons were running out of patience. Khrushchev had warned Kennedy that he intended definitively to solve the Berlin problem later in 1962.
The one and only safeguard for West Berliners was the U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. Anything that weakened the credibility of this threat could have forced the U.S. president to surrender West Berlin or else initiate what could have turned into global nuclear war. That was why Kennedy felt he could not let Khrushchev get away with what he had done in Cuba. The movie gets this right where so many histories have not.
Finally, the film succeeds in representing the presidency as demanding very high intelligence and cool judgment. For years now, movies have either trivialized the office (The American President, Dick, and Wag the Dog) or represented it as a weak institution surrounded by sinister centers of secret power (JFK). Bruce Greenwood’s wholly believable performance as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days shows a real president – not a Camelot knight but someone who recognizes that he has a very difficult job and that anything he does or says can have huge consequences. If nothing else, Thirteen Days demonstrates that it can matter a lot who gets elected to occupy the White House.
Thirteen Days is not a substitute for history. No one should see the movie expecting to learn exactly what happened. But the film comes close enough to truth that I will not be unhappy if it is both a big success now and a video store staple for years to come, with youths in America and around the world getting from it their first impressions of what was probably the greatest international crisis in all of human experience.
* This article appeared in The American Prospect vol. 12 no. 1, January 1, 2001 – January 15, 2001.