And We Are All Mortal

Thirteen Days Film Still

Marya Kazakova as the Soviet Woman waiting outside Robert Kennedy’s office while Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin attempts to postpone World War Three, tentatively scheduled for the following morning.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with JFK’s presidency continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Thirteen Days.  For the previous posts in the series, see here, here and here.

Other than two contemporaneous documentaries, there aren’t any noteworthy films about the 1960 US presidential election, at least as far as google cares.  Likewise, in cinematic terms, The Bay of Pigs has been frequently referenced but rarely depicted.  So with the exception of November 1963, only thirteen days of October 1962 define the Kennedy presidency in film, and only twice have those thirteen days been presented to audiences in a substantial production.

Ironically, 2000’s Thirteen Days isn’t based on Robert Kennedy’s book; it just uses the title to great advantage; an advantage that 1974’s made-for-TV docudrama, The Missiles of October, which was based on Robert Kennedy’s book, gave up in alluding to another book, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  If you’re confused, just imagine how Robert MacNamara felt.  As the Kennedy administration’s Secretary of Defense, he’d personally experienced every moment of those thirteen days at their most immediate and intense, and when he was told Kevin Costner was starring as the main character–well he surely envisioned himself as that character, and must have been immeasurably flattered.  But he had to ask, just to be sure, and when producer Peter Almond, who had arranged a private screening for MacNamara, said, “Kenny O’Donnell,” MacNamara immediately refused, adamantly, to watch the movie, because in reality, O’Donnell was among those least aware of what happened during the crisis; he was a personal appointment secretary, and his job was nothing more than tracking and choreographing politically beneficial occasions, and keeping the President punctual.  Something like the guy on the carrier deck holding the paddles.  Undeniably an important position, but of a necessarily limited importance, particularly when contrasted with someone at the highest levels of command.

Robert MacNamara failed to understand the phenomenal value of a well-placed fictive device, at least until he later relented and viewed Thirteen Days, which he then described it as “absolutely fascinating … a very constructive and responsible portrayal…”  That fascination, which is sadly absent from The Missiles of October, doesn’t arise from the responsible presentation of factual details, which both films do well, but from placing those details in personal perspectives; most frequently by allowing Kevin Costner to portray Kenny O’Donnell responding to these moments, or acting upon those events, as they are revealed to him, and in turn to the viewer, through the fabrication of O’Donnell as a character who is essentially fictional in spite of being a real person who was also a close friend of Robert Kennedy.

As with any illusion, the effectiveness of it is established through a deft sleight of hand.  The opening credits present themselves on a backdrop of short clips evoking the zeitgeist of the conflict through the confluence of the two concurrent international contests–the space race and the arms race.  And as the last of the credits fades out along with these images, we find ourselves at the O’Donnell family’s breakfast table.

The O'Donnel Dinner table from Thirteen Days

The implicit cliche goes unsaid, but remains clear; all the more so for being tacitly inferred; the first of these thirteen days begins like any other day.  A detail made all the more effective for its triviality is Kevin’s report card, which he tries to slip past his dad by saying it’s a permission slip.

Kevin O'Donnel's report card from Thirteen Days

Of course, dad notices just a heartbeat before putting pen to paper, and this image retains a recurring resonance each time the elder O’Donnell rebukes or reproves either Jack or Bobby, or when he reminds everyone that press secretary Pierre Salinger had to be kept in the dark throughout the crisis, or when he spells out to a journalist the consequences of reporting rumors the White House is unwilling to confirm.  And true to form, the film concludes with the last of the thirteen days ending like any other day, with Bobby standing beside Jack, and saying, “We’re out here, Kenny.”

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