Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Cuban Missile Crisis: A comparison of two movies



"For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

- President John F. Kennedy (1963), the year after the crisis

I have watched two movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis, in addition to the episode about it in CNN's Cold War series. I've also seen it treated in some documentaries about the Kennedys, so I feel like I have some basic knowledge about it. I'm thus in a position to compare the different media about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and say what the advantages and disadvantages of each one are.


U-2 reconnaissance plane (during refueling)

How the crisis began

But before I do this, I should probably explain what the Cuban Missile Crisis was, for those who don't know. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the time in world history when the world came closest to nuclear war. The Soviets began to put nuclear missiles in Cuba, which were discovered by an American U-2 reconnaissance flight. The plane brought photographic evidence of them back to the United States, which alarmed the few authorized to see them. President Kennedy and his advisers knew that these missiles were well within range of a significant portion of the United States, and would have allowed the Soviets to nuke much of the country with little or no warning. This would have given them a first-strike capability.


Actual U-2 reconnaissance photograph of Soviet missiles in Cuba (visible when magnified)



How the Americans responded to the threat

To make a long story short, the crisis lasted about two weeks; during which time the Kennedy administration considered bombing Cuba, invading it, and even going to war with the Soviet Union. They actually did blockade it, using the term "quarantine" for legal reasons, as the word "blockade" was legally defined as an act of war. During this time, one of the American ships in the blockade fired a warning shot at a Soviet ship that was thinking about trying to get through, which caused considerable anger in the Kennedy administration, as they were afraid this incident might start World War Three.


General LeMay and U-2 reconnaissance pilots meet with Kennedy, during crisis

Actual shooting between the two sides on more than one occasion

The Americans continued their U-2 reconnaissance flights over the island of Cuba, even sending some planes in at dangerously low level. Low-level flying not only increased the potential for crashing (it made the ground dangerously close), but Soviet and Cuban troops at the bases being surveyed had no way of knowing the planes carried cameras instead of bombs. Thus, they thought they were under attack, and opened fire on the American planes. They put some bullet holes in a few of the planes' wings. A guy in a missile silo even launched a rocket at one of the planes, shooting it down and killing the pilot. (This did not make their superiors happy, as the Soviets were also afraid of World War Three, and feared this would begin a nuclear exchange.)


Photo from U.S. blockade of Cuba, 1961 (during crisis)

How the crisis finally ended

The blockade wasn't working, as Soviet ships were getting through anyway; and the blockade couldn't do anything about the Soviet missiles already in Cuba. Kennedy didn't want to retaliate over the shooting down of the U-2, as he wasn't sure whether it had been ordered by the communist governments, or was just fired by some idiot in a missile silo (which it was); but he had earlier threatened on TV to "bring a full retaliatory response on the Soviet Union." Kennedy was threatening a full-scale attack on Cuba, which would have meant war with the Soviet Union; and the Soviet Union eventually backed down and removed the missiles, in exchange for the promise that the Americans would withdraw their Jupiter missiles from Turkey (near the Soviet Union) in six months. Thus a nuclear war was averted, which had been perilously close to happening.


Jupiter missile on launch pad

These events make for good movies

As you might expect, these frightening events make for good movies, and there are many movies out there which depict narrowly averting a nuclear war. (It's a common theme in Cold War movies.) The difference with these two movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis is that they are based upon real events, as this is the time in our history when we came closest to an actual nuclear exchange.


Adlai Stevenson shows missile photos to United Nations Security Council, during crisis

"The Missiles of October" and "Thirteen Days": The two movies about this crisis

So with all this said about the historical events, let me move to the comparison of these two films about them. One of these movies is a docudrama from the seventies, called "The Missiles of October," with Martin Sheen playing Bobby Kennedy (the attorney general, who was JFK's brother). The other is a Hollywood movie called "Thirteen Days," which stars Kevin Costner. Both have superb acting and good scripts, but each one has areas where it excels better than the other.


In the movie "The Missiles of October," the actors physically resemble the men they're playing

"The Missiles of October" sets itself apart in two main ways. One is that the actors chosen have remarkable physical resemblance to the men they're playing, including the actors for JFK and his brother Bobby; and you'd think they were impersonating these men. Both of them (including Martin Sheen, who plays Bobby Kennedy) give fairly convincing Boston accents, and one gets the feeling that they studied the footage of the real men, as they have their mannerisms down pat.


Cuban leader Fidel Castro with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, 1961

"The Missiles of October" also depicts both sides, where the other movie doesn't

The other main way in which "The Missiles of October" sets itself apart is that it depicts both sides of the crisis. It switches back and forth between the tense high-level discussions in the Kennedy administration, and their Soviet equivalents in the Kremlin and Politburo. There is an advantage in depicting both sides of any story. This is not to say that both sides should always be depicted favorably, but showing them side-by-side enables one to have a better understanding of the events. This is exactly what happens in "The Missiles of October."


The movie "Thirteen Days" is directed like a thriller, though ...

The "Thirteen Days" movie sets itself apart in a few ways as well. One is that it is directed like a thriller, with both a tension-building musical score, and depictions of the incidents of actual shooting. They have a great dramatization of the naval confrontation near the coasts of Cuba, with the warning shots fired at the Soviet ships; and they show the planes getting shot at as they fly low-level over Soviet bases. They also show the American plane getting shot down, which is a sad moment, but one that translates well into cinema. (Cinema is good with tragedy.)


Kennedy meeting with Robert McNamara, 1961

"Thirteen Days" also had access to some information that was not available before

For the less cinematic aspects of these events, this movie benefits from some information that the other movie's filmmakers did not have access to, which is the actual tapes of the top-secret meetings the Kennedy administration held during this time. They discussed what the best course of action was, sometimes even arguing heatedly over what to do. These tapes were still classified in the seventies when "The Missiles of October" was made, but much of them had been officially declassified by the time "Thirteen Days" was made. Thus, the movie's filmmakers do not have to guess at their actual words, but can quote them verbatim, and imitate the tape recordings of how they said them (the tone and such).


Top-secret meetings in the Kennedy administration during the crisis

Both versions make for great movies, and each has its advantages over the other

The weakness is that this film focuses only on the American side, and does not give the Soviet equivalents as "The Missiles of October" does; but even the all-talking scenes within the Kennedy administration make for high drama. All of these men were tense, on edge, and under great stress; and this translates well into movie scenes. "Thirteen Days" is my favorite of the two movies, although I greatly enjoyed both of them.


Kennedy meeting with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, 1961

Other media about the crisis

There have also been some documentaries made about this, including the episode in CNN's "Cold War" series, which interviews the real men involved in the crisis. This includes American officials like Robert McNamara, and Soviet officials like Anatoly Dobrynin (ambassador to the United States). They even interview Fidel Castro, who was an important player in these events, owing to the fact that many of them happened in Cuba. This is not to say that I recommend everything that Fidel says (I don't), but getting him on the record was a service to history. I also like this episode's use of real footage of the events, which always adds an air of authenticity.

So that's a comparison of the different media about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I hope this has been instructive to those interested in these events.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Chaos in Cuba: Communist revolution and Bay of Pigs (the events leading up to this)

JFK and RFK (a listing of movies about the two famous Kennedys involved in this)

Cold War miniseries (which includes an entire episode on Cuban Missile Crisis)

Thirteen Days - trailer only


The Missiles of October - full movie



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