Director: Roger Donaldson
Writer: David Self
Cinematographer: Andrzej Bartkowiak
by Tory Maddox
I had initially seen Thirteen Days around the time it came out. I was fourteen years old, didn’t know much about the period, didn’t understand politics or power structures, and definitely didn’t grasp how significant and historical a moment it truly was; where people around the nation truly feared that we were about to enter into a nuclear war.
Of course, there’s a subtle agenda to the whole film. It seems credible, though I’d want to dig deeper into the opposing side’s view (the book was written by Robert Kennedy, which doesn't mean I disagree so much as in any situation of this sort there are always two sides). For instance, the military sent in a reconnaissance plane, having it fly low enough for the Cuban military to fire upon it, which would be considered an act of war. The Cubans do fire and the pilot returns with a bullet ridden plane. Special Assistant to the President Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) calls the pilot and informs him that no matter what happened he should say he was struck by pigeons. Following orders, upon investigations, the pilot lies under oath, essentially saving the country at O’Donnell’s recommendation. I have no doubt this happened. It just seems like something’s missing - anyone who saw the plane would had to have known it wasn’t birds and I wonder how this was suppressed, as I would imagine it’d require significant strong arming.
The villains of this movie aren’t the Cubans. It’s the Joint Chiefs and other top military officials who are hungry to get to war, fearing that Kennedy is weak and it could cost millions of American lives. I wish the film dug a bit deeper into this philosophy since it makes them seem far too gung ho and despicable. I’m sure this battle is factual (I’m anxious to read the book), but I’m also sure that the military's concern was based off a legitimate fear of Soviet aggression (read Gulag by Anne Applebaum), it’s just never really portrayed that way. It’s them versus Kennedy, who they observe as weak. Nevertheless, it was Kennedy’s deliberation that prevented us from entering into a nuclear war. Diplomacy was a much sounder strategy than exerting muscle.
Bruce Greenwood did an excellent job of showing JFK’s internal conflict. With the fate of millions of lives resting upon his hands, he held strong to make sure that the decision was logical and pragmatic. It was something that would eat away at him throughout the crisis. I’m not sure what it must have felt like to question the military’s authority, preceded by a President who was a top general. To think that the wrong decision could drag the world into a third war is something I doubt anyone could possibly understand.
I’m fascinated by the personalities that exist in those top echelons of government, with seasoned military leaders who must now take orders from someone half their age, with little to no experience. To have the conviction and confidence to challenge their recommendations, knowing full well that they, overall, do know more. The personal politics are absolutely fascinating. Would Nixon have exerted the same reserve? I don’t think so. And so the event is remembered as working out for the best, and yet with the wrong hands it could have gone far far worse. Thirteen Days is a great exercise in deliberation and makes JFK’s death all the more tragic. Right or left, he was a solid leader who stepped up to the plate and delivered what was best for the country.
BELOW: I can't imagine what it'd be like having to disagree and stand up to the finest American military leaders in the country. Bruce Greenwood does a phenomenal job of capturing JFK's inner deliberation.
Thoughts on films, old and new
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