We almost lost it all

Jan 10, 2001 at 12:00 am

“History fades into the past pretty quickly as other events come along,” says director Roger Donaldson about the Cuban missile crisis, “and this event got forgotten very quickly with the assassination of the two Kennedy brothers. It was a very tense moment in the world’s history, and as such I feel it’s worthy of being documented. You can remind the audience of what the reality was, and I think we’ve done that in this film.”

Thirteen Days (the title comes from Robert Kennedy’s memoir, although the filmmakers have drawn on a number of historical sources) looks at the U.S. government’s response to the discovery that Soviet nuclear missiles were being assembled in nearby Cuba.

“I don’t think we’ve told everybody’s story,” explains Donaldson, “we didn’t tell the Russian side or the Cuban side — you’d have different movies — but this is the American version, how they saw it in the White House. I think it’s great to revisit the decision-making, to examine the chain of command, to recognize the elected representative — the president — is the commander in chief, and with that job comes an enormous responsibility.”

Donaldson has directed historical epics (The Bounty), political thrillers (No Way Out), large-scale disaster movies (Dante’s Peak) and small films about family conflicts (Smash Palace). He combines elements from all these genres in Thirteen Days, transforming two tension-filled weeks in October 1962 — when people literally held their breath in anticipation of a superpower nuclear war — into an intelligent nail-biter.

“What I bring to it is more of a worldview,” he explains, “because this story had a reality for me, too. I was a student in Australia at the time and I remember the (John F.) Kennedy speech that he made to the nation at 7 o’clock here, we had broadcast to us over our loudspeaker at school. It had that strange excitement that you feel when a hurricane’s coming. Tomorrow’s going to be a different day. You hope it works out well, but you know the chances are that it’s going to be disastrous. I felt that this was a story that affected everyone in the world, not just the American public. As such, I felt I wouldn’t be out to make a sort of jingoistic, patriotic film. I would be making a film that really examined honestly what really did happen.”

Instead of utilizing the great men model and focusing entirely on the Kennedys, Thirteen Days uses a White House figure who’s nearly forgotten today — Kenneth P. O’Donnell, special assistant to the president — as a humanizing element for these monumental events. A friend of Bobby Kennedy since their days on the Harvard football team, O’Donnell became a valued campaign worker for John Kennedy and subsequently played a key advisory role in the White House.

“Kenny O’Donnell had a unique place in this story,” Donaldson explains. “He was an ordinary sort of guy, lived in a modest house in the suburbs, had five kids. (Yet O’Donnell), like the Wall Street Journal said, became one of the most powerful guys in Washington. You didn’t get to see JFK without it being Kenny’s business. It seemed to me that this was an interesting sort of character to follow. He was like (an) everyman. He had a family, he worried about them. In fact, he was in a position to know the facts more than most people were. So when he goes to see his son (playing) in the football game, those were particularly poignant moments, because he knew the depth of how much in the shit we were, that this was most likely to end badly, and he had divided loyalties between his family and his country.”

For a film which focuses on firepower and internecine conflicts, Thirteen Days has a surprisingly pacifist point of view. The struggle was about how not to go to war, how to resolve the conflict without involving massive armies on the battlefield.

“What we wanted to do with this story,” says Donaldson, “was to bring forth the notion that war should be the last resort. When you look at how easily wars start and how hard they are to finish, somehow I just can’t help but be impressed that these guys — who came to power by the skin of their teeth, who were considered to be inexperienced — somehow managed to scrape together the wisdom to see this thing through. I think it’s close to a miracle.”

“(The Kennedys and their advisers) were considered young,” he continues, “but they had been through the Second World War. I think these guys were not quite as innocent as people thought they were. Even though they were young men, they had seen what war really represented, and determined that they weren’t going to be responsible for starting a new one.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]