The Missiles of October is a television movie, directed by Anthony Page and first broadcast in 1974. It stars William Devane as John F. Kennedy, Martin Sheen as Robert F. Kennedy, Ralph Bellamy as Adlai Stevenson and Howard Da Silva as Nikita Khrushchev. As its title suggests, The Missiles of October is a docudrama depicting the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. It focuses on the Kennedy administration’s handling of the crisis, drawing heavily from Robert Kennedy’s 1968 memoir of the period. The title is a nod to British historian Barbara Tuchman’s account of World War I, The Guns of August, a book known to both Kennedy brothers. Other significant figures portrayed in the film include Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, Soviet ambassador Andrei Gromyko, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and United Nations Secretary-General U Thant.
The events in The Missiles of October span the 13 days of the Cuban missile affair. It opens with Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, informing the president that Soviet missiles have been photographed on the ground in Cuba. Kennedy meets with his cabinet and military chiefs to examine the evidence and formulate a response. He resolves to keep the matter secret and orders the formation of a committee to develop and consider different options. Various perspectives are discussed, from diplomatic pressure to a full-scale military invasion of Cuba. The film also shows snapshots of Khrushchev addressing the Presidium in Moscow, offering glimpses of how the Soviets themselves might have seen the crisis. There is no focus on military preparations or action: the entirety of the film takes place in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room or other meeting rooms.
The Missiles of October is a well-written film, strongly performed by a talented cast (Devane’s performance has been lauded as the best cinematic depiction of John F. Kennedy). It contains little or no action but instead relies on screenwriting and dialogue to convey suspense or tension. Its historical depiction of the Cuban missile crisis is intelligent and even-handed – a marked contrast to the 2000 film Thirteen Days, which overemphasises the role of Kenneth O’Donnell, demonises military ‘hawks’ and does not show Khrushchev or the Soviets at all. Thirteen Days does have the advantage of declassified information that was not available to the makers of The Missiles of October in 1974. Despite this, The Missiles of October still offers a thoughtful and historically sound, if wordy depiction of the events of October 1962. The movie is available in full on Youtube and elsewhere.