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Is Hollywood ever going to learn to leave history alone? Alexandre Dumas, author of several hundred historical novels in his time, once remarked on the subject: “It’s all right to rape History, providing the resulting children are beauties.” Let me tell you, the new movie, “Thirteen Days,” starring and co-produced by Kevin Costner, is no beauty.
Those eponymous days refer, of course, to that stretch of time in October 1962 when the United States learned from aerial photographs that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba. That little island, 90 miles off the Florida coast, was, as it is today, ruled by Fidel Castro who’d just signed a deal with the Soviet Union making his country dependent on large subsidies.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy had approved an invasion of Cuba that turned out to be an ignominious defeat for the U.S., particularly since Kennedy had quickly backed down from giving any air support to the invaders. He was expecting an instant-success invasion. Lacking one, he drew back — leaving many an embittered Miami Cuban. That was the year, too, that the CIA kept trying to knock off Castro with a little help from the Mafia. You can see where Castro would not be the least adverse to the Soviets bringing in their missiles to his island.
Costner’s film, two hours and 25 minutes worth, directed by New Zealand’s Roger Donaldson (who directed Costner on his way up in the early ‘80s in “No Way Out,” the actor playing an undercover Soviet agent in Washington, D.C.), sticks to what appears to be a reasonably factual account of the happenings of those 13 days. That is to say, we don’t get any subplots or love interests for our protagonists.
Oh, you have a couple of scenes of Costner as Kenneth O’Donnell, JFK’s presidential aide, at home with his lovely wife and five attractive kids and a quick shot of the O’Donnell and Bobby Kennedy families attending Catholic mass together, but that’s about it. But we get scene after scene of meetings: Oval office, Pentagon, etc. I know Costner in his double role as name star and co-producer felt entitled to a big role, but so many of his scenes show him concernedly listening, sitting against a wall, witness to history.
David Self’s script gives a pretty high hagiographic gloss to the Kennedy brothers. The fact that the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was taken out of mothballs for one shot in the film — and that a Kennedy nephew, son of actor Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy Lawford, plays a brave young U.S. Navy pilot — is probably just coincidental.
In any event, the president and attorney general come off like golden boys whom the audience is clearly expected to admire and identify with. Relatively unknown actors –Bruce Greenwood, as JFK, and Steven Culp, as Bobby — do workmanlike jobs. Actually, Culp is downright excellent as the younger Kennedy, happening to bear a considerable resemblance to the original, and creates a convincing portrait. His Boston accent is by far the best in the picture. Spot on. As for Costner’s, I — coming from Boston myself — have but one word: grotesque.
Basically the film pits the Kennedys against the military. Gen. Curtis LeMay, not surprisingly, is shown as the most war-hungry of the lot — Kevin Conway does a more than credible job projecting a real soldier’s man but stops pretty far short of making him a psychotic maniac. But the film never misses a chance to show Kennedy grimacing in distaste at LeMay’s suggestions.
Presumably to keep audiences of today — who are largely under 40 — mindful of the total annihilation the men in the White House knew the world was facing, Donaldson brings on the massive spectacular light and sound show of an atomic explosion, not once but three times.
The Kennedys are shown using back channels for dealing with the Soviets and rather hastily agreeing to dismantling U.S. nuclear bases in Turkey, provided there is no publicity about it. Besides, as Bobby observes to brother Jack, those missiles are outmoded and we were going to take them out anyway. So much for concern about missile defense of Western Europe in the Cold War. There are frequent, well-handled moments in the film of suspense — if only you didn’t know already how the story ends.
For an interesting sidelight to add to the account of the American U-2 pilot Robert Anderson being shot down over Cuba during those days of crisis, it’s worth turning to “Family Portrait with Fidel” by Carlos Franqui, who in the early days of the Cuban Revolution was close to Castro, but defected in the early ‘60s.
As Franqui tells it, Castro was visiting one of the Soviet rocket bases on the island when the American U-2 appeared on the radar screen, flying low. Castro asked the Soviet generals how the Russians would protect themselves if that had been an attack plane instead of a reconnaissance plane. The Russians showed him the ground-to-air missiles and said that all they would have to do would be to press a button and the plane would be blown out of the sky. “Which one?” asked Castro. “This one,” said a Soviet. Castro pushed the button and the rocket brought down the plane. The Russians, to use Franqui’s word, were “flabbergasted,” but Castro simply said, “Well, we’ll see if there’s a war or not.”
Which, if true, would go a long way to explaining why Soviet Premier Khrushchev didn’t inform Castro of his order to withdraw the missiles from Cuba. Franqui learned of it from an Associated Press teletype. Calling Castro to get his reaction, Franqui got instead a burst of profanity that went on for some time, as Castro was hearing of it for the first time from Franqui.