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The Accuracy of Thriteen Days

The historical veracity of the movie Thirteen Days.

On October 22, 1962, the American public was filled with fear as President Kennedy announced the discovery of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Americans everywhere panicked and were scared to death with the thought that any minute, a missile may explode in the US, killing thousands of people. That was exactly how the public audience felt when they watched the intense and dramatic movie called Thirteen Days.

Directed by Roger Donaldson and starring Steven Costner, Thirteen Days was about the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when the intelligence and diplomatic ingenuity of the President Kennedy was shown as its best, a time when the American public was driven to fear, and a time when the Cold War came closest into turning into a nuclear war. Not only was Thirteen Days full of drama, but it was historically accurate as well.

Thirteen Days begins in October 1962 with U-2 plane flights over Cuba revealing Soviets in the process of installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. These pictures taken by the plane are immediately shown to President Kennedy by Kenneth O’Donnell, as they are an immediate threat. They are in good range of both Eastern and Southern America and one launch can kill thousands. The President and his ExComm advisors immediately begin discussing tactics to get rid of the threat. One of the earliest tactics proposed is an air strike, but is rejected as it could result in tens of thousands of casualties.

Another tactic that is proposed is a full-scale invasion of Cuba, which is preferred by many of Kennedy’s generals. However, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense proposes a less dangerous tactic, a naval quarantine of Cuba. This tactic is accepted by the President and, on October 22, he announces the discovery of the missiles and his plan to the citizens of America. On October 26th and 27th, two deals are proposed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev so that the missiles would be removed. Kennedy accepts the first deal in public and secretly had his brother, the Attorney General, accept the second deal in secret. In the end, the missiles are removed and American confidence is restored.

The movie Thirteen Days was accurate in many ways. One such way was how it depicted the fear of the American public. On one such instance, a television showed a supermarket out of food, as they were all bought by Americans to be brought home to bomb shelters. Soon after, people were shown crowding into bomb shelters. That, actually, was how Americans reacted when they were informed of the Cuban missiles; that was how scared Americans were. For example, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense said, “wondered if I’d ever see another Saturday sunset like that.”

According to statistics found, over one-third of the American population was crowded into shelters or basements, anticipating for the missile launch. In addition to that, schools were ordered that the children to practice a drill in case a real bomb was to explode. Not only were the fear of the public shown, but that of the President as well. In one scene, President Kennedy said, “For a second, I wish I wasn’t president.” That is how he felt in real life as well, as he once stated that the chance of avoiding nuclear war was no better than 50 percent.3 This fear by the Americans was accurately shown in movie because it depicted how it was in real life. This was one of the reasons why Thirteen Days was a historically accurate movie.

Like how Thirteen Days accurately portrayed fear of the Americans, it accurately portrayed significant historical events as well. For example, in the movie, when Kennedy made his decisions for a naval quarantine, he announced it in a televised broadcast in addition to the facts that there were missiles in Cuba. Though the speech was a little cut in the movie, it gave the main facts; first, that there were SS-5 and SS-4 missiles in Cuba; second, that any missile attack form Cuba was considered as an attack from the Soviet Union and was to be responded accordingly; third, that he decided to place a naval quarantine on Cuba that prevented Soviet shipments of military weapons from arriving there.4 In addition to Kennedy’s speech, the compromise between US and the Soviet Union was accurately portrayed as well.

In the movie, Khrushchev made two offers that were the same as the offers he made in actuality, the first that the missiles would be removed if it were promised that Cuba would not be invaded. Second, that the US removed the missiles in Turkey. Like how it was in real life, the content of these offers were very accurate as well. In actuality, two offers were proposed and the first was immediately accepted by President Kennedy. When President Kennedy heard the second, he was a little hesitant, but as tensions rose because a US pilot was shot down, he had his brother accept the second in secret to the Soviet ambassador. This was very accurately portrayed in the movie.

One important historical event that was accurately portrayed in the movie as well were the conferences held by Kennedy and his members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, the so-called ExComm. These conferences were very important as it showed the art of decision-making and the intense debates by the President and his advisors. One such example of its accuracy was how the first strategy, to launch an air strike, was depicted and proposed in the movie. This was accurately portrayed because the decisions made in the movie were the same as those made in real life.

The air strike was mainly supported by Robert Lovett, former Secretary of Defense.7 General Maxwell Taylor, however, showed concern regarding the strike because of its political impact and even admitted that probably, not all the sites would be destroyed. President Kennedy even states that neutralize the missiles and likely to force USSR to capture Berlin, even saying, “Which leaves me only one alternative which is to fire nuclear weapons – which is a hell of an alternative – to begin a nuclear exchange.”8 Soon after, the plan was rejected. The movie portrayed the discussion quite accurately, even including the little quote by John F. Kennedy. The historical events portrayed in the movie was just one way of how accurate it was.

A last way that the movie was accurate was the military actions in the movie. For example, in one scene, pilot Anderson was ordered to fly over Cuba to take pictures footage of the missile sites. Like how it was depicted in the movie, Pilot Rudolph Anderson was shot down on October 27th, igniting the peak of the crisis.Another military action that was accurately portrayed was the quarantine on Cuba. In the film, Kennedy stated that he would impose quarantine on Cuba to stop Soviet military supplies to reach Cuba.

On one such occasion which was accurately shown in the movie was when McNamara discovers a submarine approaching with the ships to the quarantine line and JFK wonders what would happen if the US destroyers border one of the Soviet ships and then is torpedoed by the submarine. He even orders that Russian speakers be placed on all the ships, and later, he is told that it is already being done. Later, General Taylor spots that the ships are turning around and the President becomes greatly relieved. In addition to the accurate portrayal of the event, Kennedy’s anxiousness and fear is portrayed, as well as his relief that the ships have pulled back. This is shown in this quote of his where he says, “We don `t want the word to go out from Moscow to turn around and then suddenly we sink their ship.”11 As shown in this paragraph, the military actions in Thirteen Days were accurately portrayed and one of the many ways that this was an accurate movie on the whole.

Thirteen Days, directed by Roger Donaldson and starring Kevin Costner is very dramatic and accurate as well. The fear in the movie was very accurately depicted in how Americans crammed into bomb shelters, which a third of its population did. The historical events in Thirteen Days were accurately shown as well, specifically the ExComm conferences, the speech made by Kennedy, and the ending compromise between the Soviets and America. In addition, the military actions were accurately portrayed; when Pilot Anderson was shot down and when the quarantine was issued. Most people came out of this theater probably thinking, “This was a great movie.” But without realizing it, they had a piece of history freshly and accurately embedded in their mind.

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5 Comments
  1. starsweeper
    Posted March 17, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    You’ve got a lot of great ideas in this review, but it’s marred by some editorial problems: your title has a serious typo in it and you should always talk about a film in the present tense. You keep switching between past and present tense, which is confusing for a reader. I enjoyed the historical perspective you brought to the film though ;)

  2. Pertinal
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 10:08 am

    I advice you to read this review, done by an actual scholar on the matter. It’s not that accurate.

    http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5428

  3. Posted May 17, 2010 at 11:02 am

    idk about this movie i hate government bs

  4. Posted May 17, 2010 at 11:02 am

    government is the worst bro

  5. Anonymous
    Posted May 17, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    I like pie

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