In the aftermath of the Iran/contra crisis, one of the networks decided to make a docudrama about the life of Ollie North, loosely based on a biography by Ben Bradle Jr. Its problem was that once North joined the Reagan National Security Council staff, the story lost both its moral compass and empathetic value. The producers could not find a single real-life character among the top Administration officials who displayed the slightest concern about the moral implications of North’s drug- and gun-smuggling, hostage-buying and terrorist-supplying enterprises. They solved this problem by simply inventing someone.
The producers of Thirteen Days, the new Kevin Costner/Cuban Missile Crisis $80 million extravaganza, have done something similar. Instead of inventing a new character, however, they have invented a new history for an old one. Special Assistant Kenneth O’Donnell, who was responsible primarily for presidential scheduling in real life, does not even register in respected crisis histories. In the nearly 700 pages of transcripts from ExComm, the ad hoc committee dealing with the crisis, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow and published by Harvard in 1997, O’Donnell rates exactly two insignificant lines. Yet here we see O’Donnell, played by Costner, saving the Kennedys from themselves and the world from self-destruction. One minute SuperKen is bawling out the President for going soft on the Commies, the next he’s roughing up Mac Bundy for suggesting the same. A cross between an über-aide barking orders at quivering politicos and a shaggy dog who follows his master around with scotch-filled Waterford crystal, he instructs Adlai Stevenson to stand up to the Soviets at the UN and a fighter pilot to pretend he was not shot at in Cuba. Cynics looking for an explanation of this rather odd historical rewrite might point to the fact that the film was partially funded by O’Donnell’s son, Earthlink co-founder Kevin O’Donnell.
Reviewers like the Wall Street Journal‘s Joe Morgenstern innocently term the film “a valuable history lesson.” In fact, the film takes countless liberties with the documentary record. For instance, Thirteen Days
§ conveniently skips Robert McNamara’s initial arguments that Russia’s placement of the missiles should be ignored because Soviet long-range missiles made them strategically meaningless, lest this comment undercut the film’s entire rationale;
§ ignores the record of US efforts to destabilize the Castro regime, including contingency invasion plans being readied at the time of the emplacement;
§ explicitly whitewashes the Kennedys’ unconscionable McCarthyite plot to discredit the dovish Adlai Stevenson, whose recommendations they largely–and secretly–ended up following;
§ sans evidence, attributes a column by Walter Lippmann that contained the seeds of a crisis-ending missile trade to a leak direct from Jack and Bobby;
§ places the Kennedys’ meetings that decided in favor of a missile trade inside the ExComm, when in fact they deliberately kept these secret from the “Wise Men,” fearing the same attacks they themselves had leveled at Stevenson.
Of course, the level of accuracy is not too bad for a film whose credits include six tailors and seven hairdressers but not one academic historian. (Former CIA analyst Dino Brugioni, author of a fine book on the technical aspects of the crisis called Eyeball to Eyeball, is listed, but one hopes he had nothing to do with its story line.)
My view is that anyone who takes Hollywood’s history for scripture deserves whatever they get. As John Sayles has observed to Eric Foner, “Using [the word] ‘responsibility’ in the same sentence as ‘the movie industry’–it just doesn’t fit.” Yet at the same time, Sayles noted, Hollywood can’t help itself. Often the only way to sell a movie is for the ad to read “Based on a true story…” Sometimes they get away with it, sometimes not, usually depending on whose interests are served by the lies in question. When Costner and Oliver Stone offered up their loony version of the Kennedy assassination in JFK, the Washington media establishment reacted with such outrage the Capitol threatened to float away on hot air. No one wanted to see Stone’s conspiratorial version of the assassination and the Vietnam War replace the official misinformation. On the other hand, some Hollywood lies are welcomed by pundits. Last summer, Mel Gibson and company came up with a version of the American Revolution in The Patriot in which the Americans, not the British, freed the slaves. No matter that the Southern revolutionaries fought to protect their “peculiar institution” while the British offered the slaves their freedom should they join the loyalist cause. William F. Buckley (surely a born loyalist if ever there was one) came forward to endorse Hollywood’s fictional history. David Horowitz, displaying his patented post-Stalinist brand of hysterical ignorance leavened with personal dishonesty, complained, “Leftwing reviewers inwardly despising its patriotic themes have taken to faulting its alleged historical ‘inaccuracies’ as a way of dismissing its significance…. [But] isn’t this what the American revolution was about–the promise that all men would be free? And didn’t the new nation deliver on that promise in a generation and pay an even greater price in blood to do so?”
Well, no, Comrade Horowitz, it didn’t. A generation after the Revolution, the slaves were still slaves, and Southern revolutionaries were still slaveowners. The Emancipation Proclamation (which freed only selected slaves) took nearly a century, and blacks were not given the right to a meaningful vote in the South for another hundred years after that. (Moreover, some, including quite a few thousand in Florida, are still fighting.)
Judged by the standards of JFK and The Patriot, Thirteen Days looks pretty good. At least it comes with a warning: “You’ll never believe how close we came,” its ad campaign promises. And I didn’t.