Thirteen Days is an American motion picture directed by Roger Donaldson and released in 2000. It stars Kevin Costner as Kenny O’Donnell, Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy, Steven Culp as Robert F. Kennedy and Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara. Thirteen Days is a dramatisation of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 (its title refers to the length of the crisis). The film opens with White House staff learning that U-2 flights over Cuba had obtained photographic evidence of Soviet ballistic missiles being installed there. John F. Kennedy agrees that the missiles must be removed as they give Moscow a ‘first strike’ option. He comes under considerable pressure to order air strikes or an invasion of Cuba. Kennedy, however, is reluctant to rush into a military response that is likely to trigger nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Instead, the president assembles a team of political and military advisors to brainstorm solutions to the crisis.
Much to the disgust of military ‘hawks’ like Air Force general Curtis LeMay, the president decides to impose a naval blockade around Cuba. American naval vessels will stop and search ships entering Cuban waters, to prevent more Soviet military equipment and personnel from being landed on the island. Since a blockade is technically an act of war, Kennedy decides to call this measure a “quarantine”. The president appears on national television to tell the American people of the Soviet missiles in Cuba and his response. Moscow sends different messages in response, while several Soviet freighters are spotted heading across the Atlantic to Cuba. The freighters eventually stop at the quarantine line, however, subsequent developments push the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.
Thirteen Days‘ account of the Cuban missile crisis is entertaining and, for a motion picture, reasonably thorough. It is told from the perspective of the US political and military leadership; the Soviet hierarchy is shown only briefly and Cuban leaders are not seen at all. The film’s narrative focuses on Kenneth O’Donnell (1924-77), a close friend of the Kennedy brothers and the president’s appointments secretary. Some historians have criticised O’Donnell’s prominence in the film, arguing that he was a minor functionary with a neglible role in the missile crisis. Despite its excessive focus on O’Donnell, Thirteen Days still depicts most of the significant players in October 1962, including the Kennedy brothers, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Adlai Stevenson, Maxwell Taylor, McGeorge Bundy, Ted Sorensen and Pierre Salinger. It certainly depicts the intense risks of the crisis and the cautious manner in which it was handled by the Kennedy administration.