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Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013

‘The Missiles of October’

Movies on the nuclear apocalypse (that never happened)

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Daunting international tension has been the subject of several movies in which the president of the United States had to bite the bullet to avoid nuclear war. Among the most notable are Fail Safe (1964) with Henry Fonda; World War III (1982) with Rock Hudson; By Dawn’s Early Light (1990) with Martin Landau; and The Day Reagan Was Shot (2001) with Richard Crenna.

Perhaps the most alarming true-life situation recreated on film was the Cuban missile crisis, which nearly led to war with the Soviet Union 51 years ago this month, from Oct. 15-28, 1962. This event terrified the entire world and was portrayed in two riveting docudramas, Thirteen Days (2000) and The Missiles of October (1974).

To be sure, whoever occupies the White House faces unrest in the world. The pushing and shoving needed to get elected pales in comparison to life-and-death decisions in the Oval Office. Yet, what man or woman could have been prepared for the Cuban missile crisis?

So as we look ahead to the 2016 presidential election, let’s look back at Thirteen Days and The Missiles of October, two of the best examples of a harried president on the world stage. But first, a quick review of the tense situation.

On Oct. 15, 1962, President John F. Kennedy was shown U-2 spy plane photos with hard evidence that the Russians were installing offensive missiles with nuclear warheads on Cuba, the Communist stronghold 90 miles from our shores. Back then, everyone was terrified the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union would become hot. Both boasted huge arsenals of nuclear weapons and were led by men with frontline military experience: Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Thus, the fear of the Soviets using Cuba as a staging area for an attack on America or invasion in the Western Hemisphere, despite Khrushchev’s insistence the missiles were defensive. JFK and the executive committee of the National Security Council met many times, and he learned the missiles would be ready to fire in two weeks.

After serious and contentious debate, the president and his team voted to impose a naval blockade preventing Soviet vessels from delivering additional weapons and other military supplies. But a blockade often is considered an act of war.

The next night, JFK addressed the nation on TV. He said there were Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, he had imposed a quarantine of offensive weapons coming to the island and an attack on America would be met with a full retaliatory response against the Soviets.

In Thirteen Days, President Kennedy was played by Bruce Greenwood, with Kevin Costner as Kenneth O’Donnell, special assistant to the president. And this absorbing, 145-minute dramatization of the chilling events is seen through O’Donnell’s eyes as an emotional everyman’s view of life-or-death political intrigue.

O’Donnell’s close friendship with JFK—along with the advice of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp) and speechwriter Ted Sorensen (Tim Kelleher)—offers a revealing insight into the inner workings of presidential decision making. And JFK needed help while incurring the hostile opposition of his military chiefs who pushed hard for air strikes against Soviet ships on the high seas as well as the bombing of Cuba.

Seeking a way to remove the missiles but avoid an act war, Kennedy was reluctant to attack and invade Cuba because it could incite the Soviets to invade the still-divided Berlin. When he announced the blockade, the Soviets responded with mixed messages. A back-channel contact involving ABC News reporter John Scali (Jack Blessing) and Soviet insider Aleksandr Fomin (Boris Lee Krutonog) assisted in resolving the situation.

Helping make The Missiles of October engrossing was dead-ringer actors such as William Devane (as JFK), Howard Da Silva (Khrushchev), Martin Sheen (Robert F. Kennedy), John Dehner (Dean Acheson), Dana Elcar (Robert McNamara), Larry Gates (Dean Rusk) and James Olson (McGeorge Bundy), among many others.

During its gripping 153 minutes, The Missiles of October recalled JFK’s anguish, Khrushchev’s gruff obstinacy, RFK’s outbursts, American military leaders pushing for bombing Cuba and sinking Soviet supply ships, fierce infighting among American and Soviet decision-makers and UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Ralph Bellamy) unveiling incriminating reconnaissance photos of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba.

A highlight was Stevenson’s famous reply to his Soviet counterpart’s comment that “You will have your answer in due course.” To wit: “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision.”

A day before the crisis was resolved, American Maj. Rudolph Anderson’s U-2 was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air missile, prompting an angry outburst by Khrushchev against his own military. Although outraged, JFK kept his cool.

In the end, of course, Khrushchev (in return for Kennedy’s pledge not to invade Cuba) ordered that Soviet nuclear long- and medium-range missiles and surface-to-air missiles and rockets be dismantled and destroyed. His request that American obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey be withdrawn was publicly rejected by JFK, but secretly honored.

Both edge-of-the-seat Cuban missile crisis films demonstrate a triumph of U.S. brinksmanship. As Secretary of State Rusk noted when Soviet ships finally turned back, ending the crisis: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”