Thirteen Days

by Gary Gordon

     We appear to be living in a time of lessons, from DNA to impeachment to the intricacies of voting machines to the muddled nature of Supreme Court decisions, so it makes sense that a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, as it is known, appears on our theater screens now.
     Thirteen Days is a movie of many lessons, but that alone isn't what makes it a fine movie. The acting, featuring a cast starring Kevin Costner, is outstanding; the directing by Roger Donaldson, cinematography and music all contribute to the excellence of the drama. The storytelling, with a script by David Self, is superb. But it is the story itself that grips and provokes.
     And it is within the story that the study of nuance and the lessons of politics, groupthink, diplomacy, militarism, suspicion and idealism dwell, to be explored by those who care.
     Thirteen Days is a movie about decision-making set against the ultimate deadline; decision-making in an era when linear thought, context, and an understanding of complexity prevailed-an era prior to Attention Deficit Disorder, distraction, dumber & dumberism, and the 30-second sound-bite that must be accompanied by a rapidly moving camera.
     For those too young to remember, in 1962 (before the Vietnam conflict really exploded), the Soviet Union sent tactical and strategic nuclear missiles to one of its "client" states, Cuba. These missiles put Washington D.C. within range for the first time, and signaled to many that the USSR was adopting what is known as a first-strike capability.
     President John Kennedy, who had inherited a disastrous plan to invade Cuba when he was elected (Operation Mongoose) and had pulled the plug on the invasion in 1961 (The Bay of Pigs), was informed of the missiles when our spy plane (the U-2) photographed construction of the bases.
     It is here, with the discovery of these bases, that the movie and the crisis begins.
     And it is here that the first lesson occurs, for there are many now among us who did not live through the threat of nuclear missiles on 90 miles from the continental United States, many whose hopes and fears we not shaped by those tense times; and there are many of us who, though we lived through it, may have displaced those thoughts and forgotten those lessons.
     I turned ten years old a week before the crisis, and my Mom and Dad gave me a small roll-top desk as a present; I could store stuff in all the neat nooks and drawers, I could roll the top up and down, and, it was hoped by my parents, I would use it for my schoolwork. Within a week I was poised at that desk, working hard on a class assignment: drawing a map from the school to our house, demonstrating that I knew the way. We would each carry the maps we drew for the next two weeks.
     I remember the drills in school, at random hours. We did not duck under desks. We gathered at the "north playground" to be picked up by our parents. We practiced getting out of the classroom in a hurry. We practiced walking home. Once we had a drill and I forgot my Davy Crockett fringe jacket.
     "I have to get it."
     "No, you'll get it tomorrow."
     "But there may not be a tomorrow."
     "This is only a drill."
     "If it's only a drill, let me go get my jacket."
     Troop and weapons carriers moved south through town. One neighbor bought and installed a bomb shelter. I thought it was all high adventure; but the parents were all very worried, very nervous. And that anxiety over the threat of nuclear war with its collateral concerns about Communism and patriotism, was subliminally conveyed, transmitted to a generation that ended up at odds over the Vietnam War, divided as was Kennedy's executive committee, between hawks and doves.
     The first lesson, that it was a very scary time, is followed rapidly by other lessons: communication though slower, is almost always problematic. So is chain of command. So are Rules of Engagement. Judgment is always required.
     Knowledge of the enemy was spotty; was Kruschev in charge?
     Attitudes about our leadership was divided: some in the military thought Kennedy (a war hero) was gutless. Some thought he didn't belong in the presidency. No one had been in the situation before, so some looked to the past (WWII) for instruction, others looked to the present or their vision of the future. Some presumed to know the "Russian mind", others did not. Kennedy pressed for options while others insisted the only choice was to fight or cave.
     Generals Maxwell Taylor and Curtis LeMay (who later got a lot of the war they craved in Vietnam) argued for invasion of Cuba. UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson argued for diplomacy. Kennedy sought a path that would stop the missiles without starting World War III.
     This is a movie of arguments, of persuasion, and of events not always neatly controlled.
     This was before the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (which stopped above-ground nuclear testing), so at one point when Kennedy is hoping to send a message to the Soviets that negotiation is an option, the US, in a previously scheduled test, sets off a bomb in its nuclear testing area in the Pacific; the result is the Soviets get a very mixed signal.
     At another point, the military decides to move to the readiness status of defcon 2 although Kennedy had ordered it remain at defcon 3; defcon 2 involved a series of troop movements which, when detected by the Soviets, again sent a message counter to what Kennedy wanted to send.
     At several points Kennedy is cautioned by his brother Bobby and Kenny O'Donnell (Costner) that he is being set up by the military, that the generals are creating courses of action that will definitely lead to war. The lessons here are numerous; one, in the form of a question: how in charge is the person in charge?
     In one of the most crucial passages of the movie, Kennedy tells Bobby and O'Donnell about having recently read The Guns of August (by Barbara Tuchman), an award-winning book recently published at the time about how WWI began. Its thesis, he explains, is that it began with a series of incidents and accidents and misunderstandings and was propelled by Generals and leaders who already had plans drawn up, all based on "the last war", all not taking into account subsequent developments in weapons technology; they propelled it into an all-out bloodbath, for no reason, and it left the average footsoldier to die in the trenches wondering what for.
     Historians in the last few years who have listened to White House tapes and researched the events surrounding these two weeks have placed increasing emphasis on this book and its contribution to Kennedy's thinking and his resolve as he repeatedly rejected his general's war cries and ultimately achieved a diplomatic solution.
     The lesson here is of the importance of intelligence, knowledge, and of the importance of nuance. One shudders at how Nixon or Johnson would have responded to the unanimous declarations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, given their propensity to launch attacks- For that matter, one can only wonder if any of our other recent leaders would have responded as well as Kennedy. As for Dubya, well, The Guns of August was never made into a movie, and he doesn't even read the Cliff Notes, so we can be glad he wasn't around then and can only pray with regard to the next four years.
     But this movie is not a blanket celebration of Kennedy. Told mostly through the eyes of O'Donnell, it seeks to be a dramatic recounting of well-documented events.
     Kennedy-haters will probably find much to dislike, and certainly, if you believe that the US should have invaded Cuba during the crisis, you'll probably hate the movie and might even condemn it as a piece of pro-Cuban Red propaganda. Nevermind that any invasion would've been met with tactical short-range nuclear weapons, or that Cuba itself had very little to do with the crisis-it was the USSR at the helm. But then your quarrel would be with history, as the movie generally works hard to reflect what happened.
     And for those whose interest is in entertainment, not lessons, this movie is suspenseful and unrelenting. It's a roller-coaster ride toward nuclear Armageddon, part Scream, part Jaws, and part Stars Wars without the tits, the contents of the shark's stomach, or Princess Lea's bun-hair.
     And it ends with a haunting statement from CIA director John McCone--but I don't want to give that away.



Thirteen Days