Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Missiles of October/Thirteen Days Film Review


The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I return for another round in this parallel post thingy of ours. However, given the title we agreed to take on this month, some confusion arose regarding the movie portion of this book/film adaptation series. Robert F. Kennedy’s svelte 1967 written memoir of the fraught behind-the-scenes at the White House that dealt with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

When we began to look into this, it was discovered the adaptation of this work was the TV movie broadcast from 1974, The Missiles of October. The more recent Thirteen Days (2000) was based on ‘The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis’ by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. Rachel’s preference had been for the more recent film, but we realized it was based on a different book.

What to do?

Audible, in the same manner of the ExComm, I’d say. Ignore our usual. Still, my colleague would examine RFK’s book in question, however I will do joint mini-reviews of both the TV movie, which I saw first-run back in ’74, and the more recent theatrical film I hadn’t seen. A brief comparison will be added since they both deal with the same historical event. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

Thirteen Days by Robert F. Kennedy

A brief synopsis of the film: Each film, per Wikipedia, “…describes the meetings held by the Executive Committee (ExComm), the team assembled by US President John F. Kennedy to handle the tense situation that developed between the United States and the USSR following the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles (140 km) from Florida.” October, 1962.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“When I was twelve, I helped my daddy build a bomb shelter in our basement because some fool parked a dozen warheads 90 miles off the coast of Florida.” ~ Skip Tyler, The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Being only eight years old when this event occurred I tried to remember that time when screening these films. It’s fleeting, but did register in that way kids’ sense when something’s afoot and don’t quite understand. No doubt, adults speaking in hushed tones — the way they do when they’re scared and/or don’t wish to alarm children — the dead giveaway. I don’t think anyone ever explained it in any detail once the crisis played out, either.

The Missiles of October

The 1974 made-for-television dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it debuted, was a mesmerizing and memorable viewing experience for those who caught it. Essentially presenting the key aspects of the ’62 historical event in such a way as to bring the high stakes of nuclear brinksmanship uncomfortably into viewers homes. Uneasy because it was true, and unimaginable for those who hadn’t realized nuclear ruin had only a mistake or misstep away. The teleplay was history as drama, and a peek to how diplomacy was conducted at this level.

Director Anthony Page, who delivered with the Pueblo TV dramatization a year before, and writer Stanley R. Greenberg (who also wrote Pueblo and adapted Harry Harrison’s sci-fi classic Soylent Green in ’73) refashioned RFK’s memoir to gripping effect. While it maybe perceived as merely some lowly TV movie, the producers used the small screen to startling effect. Mixing news footage with crowded meeting rooms, political players and dignitaries (on both sides) pitched against the ramifications that could lead to doomsday.

In a wonderful touch, the venerable character actor Edward Binns was the narrator for The Missiles of October; he played Col. Grady in FAIL-SAFE, Sidney Lumet’s undervalued Cold War nuclear crisis thriller.

A good deal of the great acting on stage were managed by a number of movie and television character actors. Yet, the power and energy of The Missiles of October centered squarely on William Devane, as the young president, John F. Kennedy, with only a year left in term and life, and a young Martin Sheen as his younger brother, the Attorney General, and the prime chronicler. The overall production was one that overcame its small screen, perhaps stage-bound, depiction and made its effort towards a stark glimpse of history a strength.

President Kennedy: “Is that what you really think? Are you trying to tell me they’ll let us bomb their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, then do nothing. They don’t move in Cuba, General, they’ll certainly do something in Berlin.”
General: “You’re in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President.”
President Kennedy: “You’re in it with me.”

Luckily, I found the original TV trailer for this teleplay:


The tense real-life, and by now well-documented, crisis was given the appropriate cinematic treatment care of Kevin Costner’s (who starred and co-produced) 2000 film. Many thought such a thing was overdue, and a worthy endeavor that would bring what happened so long ago to the big, wide-screen. The production attempted to inform while entertain the masses — you cannot forget the studio backing this only wanted to sell movie tickets and not draw kudos from historians or those who lived through this.

The film succeeded with the former, but shot blanks, unfortunately, with the latter’s box office take. That’s too bad because it effectively opened a window back to the 60s, years ahead of Mad Men, in a way few have done recently. Roger Donaldson and David Self (as director and screenwriter) respected the material (to a point) enough to let what happened unfold without the need to enhance the history recreated — yeah, I’m looking right at you Michael Bay and your inane Pearl Harbor film (sheesh!). But, I digress.

The film proved to be a thriller in solid standing to historical events. One that built its tension honestly and in good measure to craft. Another solid cast of less than big name performers took up the yoke of their real counterparts, with unforeseen determination to get fact and personalities just right. Certainly, Bruce Greenwood, Stephen Culp, and Dylan Baker stood out (as JFK, RFK, and Robert McNamara). Being that these three were at the core in telling the tale how close we came at the brink, the movie assuredly did its job.

“You’re a good man; your brother is a good man. I assure you there are other good men. Let us hope the will of good men is enough to counter the terrible strength of this thing that was put in motion.”


Comparing the Films

I’d add in comparing the posters from above, hands down the one I’m still drawn to is the 1974 movie’s ad page. Those drawn missiles, taking the place of the i’s in the word ‘missiles’, in simple but varying stages of launch remains the epitome of an elegant, yet quite chilling, graphic.

I’m fully aware of history and these events specifically, even years later. Yet, both films managed to rack me to an unexpected extent during my screenings, only days apart. In other words, both films succeeded at grabbing the viewer’s awareness and twisting your gut as to what could have been the outcome. Given the slower pace real history unfolds, in this day and age of audience-limited attention spans (or the producers’ belief in such), that’s saying something.

oct-scali_forninThey succeeded and complemented each other, as well. No small feat. Certainly, The Missiles of October takes the higher-level approach, looking both at those inhabiting the White House and the Kremlin while this crisis unfolded, though gravitating more to RFK’s inner-sanctum perspective. Thirteen Days focused on a wider one at home, bringing in added players involved with this ultimately tense game of chicken. In this, no one was on the periphery. I can’t fault either viewpoint for events offered a vast stage for everyone to achieve success or kill millions as a result.

As long as we don’t have to mention Kevin Costner’s Boston accent (shades of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with his British intonation), I’m perfectly content to equate them, nearly. My preference remains with the earlier work, but can certainly recommend the latter to friends and family for history’s and movie’s sake. I’d still go with Missile’s Devane’s and Steen’s JFK, RFK, pairing, but Dylan Baker’s McNamara in Thirteen was an eye-opener. While I’m at it, John Dehner‘s formidable Dean Acheson blows Len Cariou‘s portrayal out of the water. But, Hell, you can’t go wrong no matter which film you choose.

It’s not like you had to pick the correct letter from the Soviets to respond to.

“The hard part about playing chicken is knowin’ when to flinch.” ~ Captain Bert Mancuso, The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Parallel Post Series

19 Responses to “The Missiles of October/Thirteen Days Film Review”

  1. jackdeth72

    Excellent choices and dissertations, Michael!

    Being a child ( like you, I imagine) of that momentous time wasn’t really all that scary to me. My dad had been involved in Civil Defense during WWII and had kept abreast of all of that agency’s brochures and hand outs long afterwards.

    We didn’t have a bomb shelter, but a very sturdy below ground basement about twenty minutes driving time from the White House and DC for what it was worth.

    Now. Back to the films.

    ABC’s ‘Missiles of October’ has it all over the later ‘Thirteen Days’. Which says something very profound about the quality of television entertainment at that time.

    From William Devane’s very notable take on JFK. To Martin Sheen’s Bobby. Backed up by a slough of solid series television and film veterans. The sense of drama, urgency and spartan claustrophobia during the wind up to Russia’s blinking is palpable, memorable. And some of the best work put forth in that company’s prime time history.

    While ‘Thirteen Days’ has all the ear marks of decent, updated Hollywood fare. It doesn’t carry the urgency and “What if?” of that nostalgic time.


    • le0pard13

      Great info, Kevin. So close to where those decisions came. We’re in agreement, too, with the ’74 teleplay. They accomplished so much with a fraction of the budget. I did enjoy the updated film, though. Well, except for Costner accent ;-). That got to be a bit distracting. Thanks so much, my friend.


      • jackdeth72

        Hi, Michael:

        If you want a distracting and eventually lost fake Boston accent. Look no further than Mike Farrell (B.J. Hunnicut) as JFK in the 1984 PBS production of ‘JFK: A One-Man Show’.

        A truly awful, incredibly lame whitewash of JFK and his family’s history.


        • le0pard13

          I think I’ve heard of that one, just never saw it. Definitely sounds like something I wish I would had I done so. Thanks, Kevin.


  2. Charley Harmon

    Throughout the crisis, Turkey had repeatedly stated that it would be upset if the Jupiter missiles were removed. Italy’s Prime Minister Fanfani , who was also Foreign Minister ad interim, offered to allow withdrawal of the missiles deployed in Apulia as a bargaining chip. He gave the message to one of his most trusted friends, Ettore Bernabei , the general manager of RAI-TV , to convey to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. . Bernabei was in New York to attend an international conference on satellite TV broadcasting. Unknown to the Soviets, the US regarded the Jupiter missiles as obsolescent and already supplanted by the Polaris nuclear ballistic submarine missiles.


  3. Rachel

    Fantastic reviews and comparison (thanks again for doing both). I think they both have a lot to offer in telling this story. I liked the Russian side of things in the older version and I liked how both presented the crisis in a larger framework. It’s a lot different from RFK’s memoir as that is such a close view and has an almost insular feel to it. It’s easy to forget about the military exercises, protests, and emergency preparations when reading the memoir. Both movies do a lot for context.

    Your observation of the ‘stage-bound’ nature of the 70s movie was spot on, I thought. I noticed it most in the over-acting. The acting is very good but there’s no denying that many scenes become over the top. Very stage-like in that way. However, the 2000 film suffers from the military getting a lot of caricature treatments. I know in hindsight the military option was (obviously:) not the only option but the newer film really portrays the military guys as one dimensional and willfully belligerent. Who knows, maybe they were, but it didn’t blend well with the rest of the film which obviously tries hard to present all the major players of the crisis.

    Maybe it is just “how close we came” but it’s astounding to me that both films manage to be so nerve-wracking. Not only do I know what happens but, with one of them, I’ve already seen the film multiple times… and yet, yet, yet I’m so damn nervous the whole time. That’s good stuff!


    • le0pard13

      Great and observant points, Rachel. Yes, I thought the 2000 film did portray the ‘brass hats’ (the term the memoir and films used) a little too over-the-top. It did become a tad distracting. Still, I became well involved with the same story in both versions. Quite some history. Glad you picked this as it gave me a chance to review and compare these films. It was very enjoyable, and nerve-wracking, to do so. Thanks, Rachel.


  4. Marianne Hansen

    I loved Thirteen Days, but I’ve never seen The Missiles of October. I’m going to have to look that one up. I love films based on actual events.


    • le0pard13

      It’s worth the effort to screen the older teleplay, Marianne. Yes, its stage setting may at first be odd, but I think you’ll quickly forget about it as the history (and performances) gather you in. Thanks for the read and comment, my friend.


  5. ruth

    Excellent post! Thanks for reminding me that I need to Thirteen Days, somehow it has eluded me. I like all the actors in it, too. Ahah, I like that jab against Michael Bay there 😀



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