April 1, 2001
Apr 1, 2001
22 Min read time
Directed by Roger Donaldson
No more than ten people were in the audience at the afternoon showing of Thirteen Days. My brother and I had planned it as a relaxing afternoon to be followed by a celebratory dinner after my last class of a grueling semester. We certainly were not expecting to be deeply moved or to learn anything new from a Kevin Costner film. We had both lived through the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, those days when you wondered whether you were a fool not to have built a bomb shelter for your family. America had been on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and Khrushchev had backed down.
But these events had been replayed many times before, particularly here in Cambridge, Mass., where rehashing the crisis became a cottage industry. Back in the 1960s Arthur Schlesinger Jr. helped Bobby Kennedy write a memoir of those thirteen days. In his short-lived presidential campaign, Bobby argued that his role in that crisis demonstrated his qualification to be president. Various notables in the State Department, Defense Department, National Security Council, and White House all claimed credit for the final outcome. A 1974 made-for-TV movie,The Missiles of October, portrayed a gallant JFK as the wise peacemaker. Later we would discover that, long before Nixon, Jack Kennedy had been secretly taping White House conversations, and much of the crisis deliberation transcript has since been published as The Kennedy Tapes. With the collapse of the Soviet government academics have been able to parse every detail on both sides of the brinkmanship. Nikita Khrushchev can claim his own share of credit for saving the world. The Cuban Missile Crisis now ranks among the most carefully documented events of the Cold War. So how could Thirteen Days be made suspenseful?
But it was. My brother and I emerged from the movie dewy-eyed with tears of relief, as we once again realized how close the world had come to Armageddon. I cannot remember having had comparably powerful feelings during the actual crisis. I felt like one of those animals who has electrodes placed deep in its brain and is forced to have profound emotions. Although my reactions were extreme, most mainstream critics were also impressed with Australian Director Roger Donaldson's ability to make this piece of history into thrilling cinema. One would have hoped to find the theaters packed with young people captivated by this reliving of history. Unfortunately, as the financial backers had feared, the younger audience stayed away. And those who wandered in were unimpressed by all the "white guys in suits." They much preferred the exoticism of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the cocaine wars of Traffic. So did the people in charge of Oscar nominations.
The young people are not entirely wrong. Despite my intense emotional reactions, my critical faculties told me I was watching a "Classic Comics" docu-drama in which the cast was not acting but impersonating real people—and not doing a good job. Bruce Greenwood played Jack Kennedy but could not summon up the President's aura; Steven Culp played Bobby Kennedy with a disconcerting effeminacy; and Kevin Costner, who starred as presidential assistant Kenny O'Donnell, had a ridiculous version of a Boston accent and in a Hollywood rewriting of history became a central player in the crisis. Still, my reason failed to protect my psyche. In part, my reaction owed to the director's psychological craft. But more of it was a consequence of my personal ties to some of the characters in the film.
The film's impact on me and on others over fifty seems to depend on our having lived through the days when the possibility of nuclear holocaust seemed real and there was nothing we could do to save our families or ourselves. Like patients going under anesthesia we had to control our fears and trust the people in charge.
Such experiences are never completely forgotten; they settle into the unconscious. Atomic explosions became an archetypal vision of the Apocalypse. Apparently that archetype, the dramatic crux of the film, has not been passed on to the collective unconscious of younger generations. Director Donaldson plays a bait and switch with the audience. His opening image is a special-effects mushroom cloud, somehow more horrifying because of its beauty. This is followed by the rapid firing of a swarm of surface-to-air missiles, an ICBM launch, and a mysterious projectile hurtling through space. Before the mind can assimilate these images, the brain jumps at the bait and considers the possibility of a world-ending nuclear war. Then that mysterious projectile swoops away and resolves into the fuselage of a U2 spy plane. We watch it fly over Cuba, photograph the Soviet missiles, and set the crisis in motion.
The director's game is intriguing because the switch does not leave you feeling cheated. Having caught your attention and thrown you back in time, he shows you something worth watching. Lest your attention wander, he uses this psychological device at repeated intervals. Halfway through the film, he suddenly interposes another atomic explosion. This time a massive hydrogen bomb lifts its manmade plumes until they tower over the natural clouds. Has the director gone overboard? Are we to be shown how the war of nerves could have ended? No, this is not fiction. David Self's screenplay narrative has based each of these terrifying visual moments on actual events: the Atomic Energy Commission went forward with a scheduled hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific during the crisis without considering the possibility that it might seem a provocation to nervous Kremlin generals.
Still, the effect of the bait seems generational. Younger people do not get thrown back to a past they never shared and are not hooked by the possibility of nuclear war. Their world is different, and one can only hope that their indifference is justified.
There were other provocations of the Soviet Union that JFK never intended—indeed more than the director includes. Some were accidental, but the premise of Thirteen Days is that Maxwell Taylor and other hawks in the Pentagon were eager to provoke the Russians into World War III and would have, had it not been for Jack and Bobby Kennedy and their only loyal friend in the White House, Kenny O'Donnell. In Thirteen Days, these three Irish Catholics from Massachusetts save the world from nuclear holocaust. And they have to fight the WASP Washington establishment, their own Cabinet, the CIA, and Congress—as well as Khrushchev—to do it.
The film unfortunately says nothing about the events leading up to the crisis that led Castro to ask for missiles and convinced Soviet hardliners to supply them. Some of these details are spelled out in Khrushchev's famous "rambling" communiqué, in which he justifies the missiles to Kennedy. The ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion was not the end of American-aided attacks on Castro's Cuba. Unidentified ships (presumably anti-Castro Cubans abetted by the CIA) had been firing on merchant vessels and on Havana itself.Thirteen Days even concedes in a throwaway line that Bobby Kennedy had been brainstorming with the CIA about assassination plots on Castro.
These actions by our side are as important for an objective history of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the events of the Gulf of Tonkin are for an understanding of America's entry into Vietnam. But Thirteen Days scants these details. Its premise is that Soviet hardliners, without any American provocation, have secretly moved offensive missiles into Cuba that would dramatically advantage their strategic position in the Cold War by providing them a first strike capability. On this everyone in the White House decision-making group, EXCOMM, is agreed. (Robert McNamara and Theodore Sorenson, two of the living EXCOMM members, have attested to the broad historical accuracy of the film narrative.) They agree, too, that the United States cannot accept this change in the Cold War balance. No one doubts that the crisis is real and that something must be done about it: a surgical strike by the Air Force on the missile sites, a full scale invasion of Cuba, or both.
In The Kennedy Tapes, one can find a reason to question the reality of the crisis. There, the president asks his experts whether forty missiles really make that much difference, given all the other Soviet ICBMs that were already aimed at America. He does not get a direct answer, but Soviet missiles in Cuba meant that a Russian first strike could destroy the majority of Americans in five minutes rather than half an hour. Of course, we had missiles in Turkey that could do the same to them. The ultimate solution was that both sides backed off, though our concession on the Turkish missiles was not made public at the time. JFK had not been as tough as the public thought. In retrospect and in the film the actual solution seems both morally and politically correct, and JFK and RFK get the credit.
Although the high level deliberations are the centerpiece of the film, engaging action episodes take us on to the high seas and the skies over Cuba, which allows the director to juxtapose EXCOMM's talk and military action. In either setting a misstep might set off the nuclear holocaust. On the last night of the crisis, Kenny O'Donnell goes to sleep hoping and praying for another sunrise. That sunrise is the director's final psychological snare: we are shown something that could be another atomic explosion, but it is a special effects version of a solar flare. Then the frame of the film widens on the dawning of a new day. Political sanity has finally prevailed over military madness.
It would be interesting to know what George W. Bush and Teddy Kennedy had to say about military hawks and political doves after the White House screening of Thirteen Days. No doubt the Kennedys in attendance were among the only viewers who recognized one of their own acting in the film. Commander Ecker, who risks his life over Cuba taking photographs of the missiles, is none other than Christopher Kennedy Lawford—Teddy's nephew. It is a bit part, but he is the only person in the film who projects the real Kennedy glamour. Intriguingly for those who recognize him, the part has him in league with his uncles in the White House.
The worst warmonger in the film is stogie-chewing Air Force General Curtis LeMay. Like Dean Acheson (who was brought in because he knows the Soviets), LeMay thinks the Kennedy boys take after their father, who as US Ambassador to England favored American isolationism and appeasement of Hitler. When the Kennedys hesitate about preemptive strikes on the missile sites, these warmongers think it is simply more of the same. JFK has little experience and Bobby has even less, but the supposed experts—Acheson, John McCone of the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff—are ready to bring on World War III. Their practiced judgment is set against the Kennedy's naïve caution. Bobby has the epiphany: there is no wise old man in this crisis, there is only us—JFK, Bobby, and Kenny. In the film, JFK, as commander-in-chief, has to bypass the military chain of command to keep the chiefs of staff from manipulating the rules of engagement to start a war. The president takes it upon himself to give direct orders to American military men on the scene. Kenny O'Donnell shares part of that responsibility in the film: he calls Commander Ecker before his low altitude flight over Cuba and warns him that he is not to be shot at because General LeMay will retaliate and start a war. Of course, Ecker is shot at and upon landing attributes the bullet holes in his plane to a flock of sparrows. Called to Washington by LeMay and the eager war hawks, Commander Ecker looks them in the eye and with Kennedy aplomb describes the mission as "a piece of cake."
The O'Donnell telephone conversations may be the best part of the film: they bring the crisis into the compass of ordinary human experience. Costner, as the president's assistant, calls from the White House just as the pilots are about to go off on their missions. They know they are risking their lives to do their job, and Costner gives them something to die for—to prevent World War III. The one fatality in the Cuban Missile Crisis was a U2 pilot shot down when a Soviet colonel, acting on his own authority, gave the order. In Thirteen Days, that pilot knows the full measure of his sacrifice.
We have no reason to believe that Kenny O'Donnell actually did any of the things he is portrayed doing in this film. McNamara and Sorenson both report that Kenny was never in the room during their deliberations. I doubt, for example, that President Kennedy sent him over to the FBI to check out the Soviet spy who became a back channel to Khrushchev. Or that he had the kind of personal relationship with JFK that is portrayed in the film. (At one point in the film, he sits the president down before his television speech and talks to him like an older brother.) Indeed, for much of the film Kenny's strategizing seems to be one step ahead of the others. But Costner's role is to be the everyman. He ultimately realizes this when he tells his wife, "I'm not smart like [the Kennedys] are." He goes to church to confess his sins and pray. And he puts his faith in his best friend Bobby, who makes the crucial deal with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, that convinces Khrushchev to remove the Soviet missiles.
In my office I have a photograph of the 1947 Harvard Varsity Football team. The good friends of the film as they were in real life—Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general, and Kenny O'Donnell, the president's assistant—are seated on either end of the second row; I am in the back. Football players make connections that last a lifetime, a truth brought home to me by my emotional incontinence as I watched this film.
In Woody Allen's movie about movies, The Purple Rose of Cairo, a leading man comes down off the screen, embraces a woman in the audience, and helps her escape with him back into the film. Some version of that moment set me off: a confrontation between the film's fictive characters and my remembered real ones. Or was it the other way around? Had my memories become fictions and the Bobby and Kenny up on the screen were the realities? I had never reconciled in my own mind the two young men of the past who had been my Harvard teammates and the men of historical consequence portrayed on the screen. When you know people's feet of clay before they become idols it is difficult to reimagine them. Thirteen Days put me to that test.
Anyone who knew Bobby Kennedy knew he was too small to play football. Nonetheless, his football career at Harvard has been made into a legend. According to a recent book, as a senior in 1947 he scored a touchdown against Yale with a broken leg. His teammates will tell you that he did start the first game of that season despite the fact that there were at least eight bigger and better players at his position, which was end. He then disappeared from the starting lineup with a mysterious injury, although he kept coming to practice. It seemed his Harvard football career was over when he broke his leg in one of the last scrimmages of the year. But the coach put him in for one play against Yale, so he could get his varsity letter. He hobbled down the sidelines on a kickoff with his leg in a cast as everyone on the team held his breath at what seemed to be an insane decision by the coach, and a measure of the Kennedy family's influence. (Teddy, as it turns out, was the only real football player in the family.) Certainly Bobby Kennedy was a fighter, almost foolhardy; he was told to avoid contact on that one play, but insisted on diving into the fray.
Although he lacked the size and ability to be a varsity football player even at Harvard College, Bobby Kennedy was still a presence on that team. He was the first "rich and famous" person most of us had met. He wore a Chesterfield overcoat and talked with that Kennedy accent, which revealed more about the years at Brahmin private schools and the Court of St. James than it did about the family's Boston Irish heritage. Born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, he was no snob. Even then he was drawn to the have-nots; psychologically he must have felt like one of them. He seemed to care particularly about the returning veterans of WWII, most of them second- and third-generation ethnics who would never have been at Harvard were it not for the GI Bill. Through his father, he got several of them summer jobs and he lent (gave) them money. Still, he was not exactly comfortable or at ease with them or with any other group. Someone who knew him well described him as "a strange combination of shyness, directness, and intensity." He certainly was painfully shy and, despite the trappings of social sophistication, he was a childlike outsider who seemed never to have belonged to a real peer group. In retrospect, Bobby probably labored under a Kennedy-sized inferiority complex. The runt of the Kennedy litter, he was too small to be a football player and far from a good student. In fact, he was probably dyslexic, and he struggled with his studies at Milton Academy and then at Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School. Bobby had no pretensions about his IQ, particularly in comparison to his brother Jack. He would surely have laughed out loud, as I did, when Stephen Culp, the actor impersonating him in Thirteen Days, utters the line, "I hate being called the brilliant one."
Like his mother Rose, whom he resembled physically, Bobby was serious about his Catholicism. One of my unforgettable memories of those days was a religious debate between the captain of the football team and Bobby. We football players ate together at the Varsity Club after practice, and when Bobby joined us, though shy, he was forever getting into arguments. On this occasion the debate was about whether the captain, Vincent Moravec, could go to Heaven. Moravec, one of the most decent human beings I have ever met, an opinion I am confident Bobby shared, was a Catholic who, according to Bobby, had irrevocably sinned by marrying a Protestant. Moravec was a huge man with the innocent eyes of a deer, and he was almost weeping as he defended himself against Bobby's inquisitorial arguments. When our captain refused to concede that he was doomed to rot in Hell, an irate Bobby informed him he would call then Archbishop Cushing to settle the matter. Bobby not only knew the phone number by heart but the Archbishop took his call even though it was by then almost 11:00 p.m. The prelate was less doctrinaire than his parishioner; the disgruntled Bobby had to report that the answer was, "it all depends." This hot-headed and narrow-minded Bobby Kennedy gave no hint of the stature he would eventually achieve.
Anatoly Dobrynin, whose meetings with Bobby were crucial to the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, seems to have recognized the man we knew on the football team. In his message to Khrushchev he described Bobby's final proposal: get the missiles out of Cuba and the president secretly agrees to take our missiles out of Turkey. Trying to impress Khrushchev with the seriousness of Bobby's proposal, Dobrynin wrote, "He didn't even try to get into fights on various subjects as he usually does." The Bobby we knew was changing, and perhaps the Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the formative moments.
Still, his obstinate moral intuitions may have been a virtue in this crisis. In his mind, the United States picking on Cuba was like a big guy picking on a little guy. The preemptive strike on the missile sites proposed by the American hardliners seemed like the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. He was not prepared to give these convictions up in the face of technical expertise. The best line in the film is given to JFK, but it also applies to Bobby: "There is something immoral about giving up your own judgment." Bobby had grown but he did not mature into the worldliness that passes as "sound" judgment in politics. The report Bobby filed with the secretary of state about his meeting with Dobrynin makes it clear that, although he wasn't picking fights, he had turned down none of the fire: "He should understand that if they did not remove those bases then we would remove them. His country might take retaliatory action but he should understand that before this was over, while there might be dead Americans, there would also be dead Russians."
Bobby continued to grow as a man after his brother's assassination, but at the core he still saw himself as an underdog, able to identify with all the underdogs and they with him. But the film fails to develop Bobby's character, and focuses instead on Kevin Costner's Kenny O'Donnell.
Like Bobby Kennedy, Kenny O'Donnell seemed an unlikely football player. He was even smaller than Bobby and looked like a leprechaun who might be blown away by the next strong breeze. But he was an uncanny pass defender, the best on the team, and his interceptions were often the only thing that kept our losing Harvard team in the game. Kenny had limited offensive skills, particularly when compared to his older brother Cleo, who had starred as a scat-back. Sons of the Holy Cross football coach, they both became captains of their Harvard teams and probably knew more about the game than anyone else on the field, including the coaches. Kenny came to Harvard after serving during World War II. He had been a bombardier, and received a purple heart and several medals for the many flights he had flown over Europe. Even in practice he was prepared to do anything it took to win. He was a master at concealing the illegal holding he used routinely to get an edge on bigger players.
No one got angry with this leprechaun; in fact we all respected him and feared his withering sardonic wit. It was Kenny, our captain in 1948, who scored the winning touchdown against Yale, while playing on a broken leg. But Kenny was not a happy hero. There was an air of desolation, a missing vitality. Even then he was drinking too much—a struggle that continued throughout his life.
The friendship between Bobby and Kenny was like the Prince and the Pauper, each envying what the other seemed to have. At the same time, their friendship was a paradigm of the Kennedy family's political alliance. Jack would build his political organization by reaching out to World War II veterans, especially working-class Catholics, for whom the Kennedys were royalty. It was Rose, the queen mother and daughter of Boston's legendary mayor, who knew and could rub shoulders with that constituency. And it was Bobby, the shy prince, who had to reach out to the campaign workers. Bobby's friendship with Kenny and the other returning veterans on the football team was the crucial experience he needed for his role as Jack's campaign manager. Bobby felt comfortable bantering with Kenny. They were psychologically similar: overshadowed younger brothers, Irish, believing Catholics, obsessed with throwing and catching a football, and unimpressed with anyone who claimed to be better than they were. Each had a chip on his shoulder. Kenny O'Donnell would become Bobby's loyal lieutenant and the head of the Irish Mafia, and that was to be his only real career. He played politics as he had played football: he did anything it took to win.
His official Kennedy career began in 1952, when Bobby, who was managing Jack's campaign to unseat Henry Cabot Lodge in the US Senate, prevailed upon Kenny to work on the campaign. Kenny dropped out of Boston College Law School, which he hated, and never looked back. After Jack won the election, Kenny worked full-time for the Kennedys; when there wasn't a political campaign, Joseph Kennedy gave him a job. Eight short years later Bobby Kennedy took his Irish Mafia (several from that Harvard football team) to Washington—they had elected the first and only Catholic president and now Kenny O'Donnell stood guard at the White House as JFK's appointment secretary. He had a new nickname, "Cobra," and his loyalty to the Kennedys was absolute. Asked by one of his old teammates how he handled all the people asking for favors, he replied, "If they have the guts to ask for them, you have to have the guts to say no."
It seems to me the high point in Kenny's service to the Kennedys can be found in his testimony to the Warren Commission. JFK's corpse lay in a room in the Parkland Hospital in Dallas. The Texas authorities were determined under their laws to do a local autopsy. Jackie Kennedy would not leave the president's body; she wanted to take her dead husband back to Washington. With help from a Secret Service agent, Kenny hustled the president's corpse out of the hospital past the protesting officials into an ambulance and told the driver not to stop until they were on Air Force One. That is the man I knew. Jackie Kennedy never forgot: she paid for Kenny's funeral.
Kenny O'Donnell's life, or at least his purpose in life, came to an end with the assassination of the Kennedy brothers. His daughter says he died of a broken heart and the Irish cancer—alcoholism. Now Kevin Costner has made him larger in death than he ever was in life.
Ironically, the only person who ever credited Kenny with playing such a crucial role in the Cuban Missile Crisis was his good friend Bobby Kennedy. After JFK's death, Kenny O'Donnell came back to Massachusetts and ran for governor. He was a terrible candidate—he could not bear the humiliation of asking people to vote for him. The only bright spot in his desultory campaign was when his friend Bobby came and made a speech on his behalf. Without batting an eyelash Bobby assured the audience that "During the Cuban Missile Crisis [Kenny] was one of the two or three major advisers to President Kennedy." Thirteen Days makes Bobby's political white lie into historical reality.
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April 01, 2001
22 Min read time