September 26, 2005

Cuba @ the Movies: Thirteen Days

The most serious conflict in director Roger Donaldson’s “Thirteen Days” is not between the U.S. and the Soviets during the “missile crisis that shook the world” in October 1962. The clash here is between the U.S. President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Like a child with a hammer who only wants a handful of nails, the war complex can’t wait to go into action, even if it means unleashing thousands of nuclear bombs. Call it retribution for the failed invasion at Bay of Pigs, or just the opportunity for a mindless show of force.

Actors Bruce Greenberg and Steven Culp shine as President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and the story is seen from their point of view. They do a great job of portraying the strength and resilience of the Kennedy brothers in avoiding a war by controlling the situation. (Can you imagine GW Bush in Kennedy’s position?)

Unfortunately “Thirteen Days” doesn’t explore Cuba’s point of view. The U.S.-funded invasion at Bay of Pigs a year earlier is barely mentioned, and the U.S.-condoned (if not funded) terrorism against Cuba at the time is completely ignored. This is a dramatic mistake as well as a historical oversight that looms over the “story” like Godzilla over Tokyo. Without a more substantial exploration of the issues preceding the crisis, how can we fully understand our role in these events?

In one understated though poignant scene, right after a difficult meeting in which the JCS tries to manipulate him into launching an attack, President Kennedy wonders out loud, “How does a man get to a place where he can say ‘throw those lives away’ so easily…” That may be the high point in Kennedy’s career.

This is clearly Roger Donaldson’s best film, although I also enjoyed Cadillac Man, No Way Out, and The Getaway. The Internet Movie Database lists some of the film’s mistakes, most of which are minor.

Learn about the Missile Crisis at, where you’ll also find a crisis timeline, a list of books, letters between Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev, and excerpts from the book Sad and Luminous Days.



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