It's a docudrama about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I hadn't known much about the original historical facts beyond a presumed connection with Cuba and nukes, so at least it's been educational. Furthermore this is one of those Hollywood historicals with integrity that are trying to do the job properly (e.g. Flags of our Fathers
) as opposed to flag-waving nonsense (The Patriot, U-571, Pearl Harbour), so it sounds as if I've been watching something with a cousinly relationship to the facts.
Firstly, the history. In 1961, the CIA was behind an attempt to overthrow Castro in what's known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. They cocked it up. A year later, America discovered that Russia was moving nuclear missiles into Cuba, which would have allowed a Russian pre-emptive strike on most of the USA with only a five-minute warning before the mushroom clouds bloomed. They were screwed. The idea of starting a full-blown nuclear war was preferable to that, as far as the American generals were concerned. What's more, that nearly happened. The moderates were struggling with the hardliners on both sides and America was on the brink of launching a full military invasion of Cuba before a deal finally squeaked through.
Ironically Castro's still alive today, nearly fifty years later, while the US President (JFK) in charge of both the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis was due to get his head blown off in Dallas only one year later.
Anyway, the film's pretty good. As far as I can tell, its most objectionable choice involves Kevin Costner's Kenneth O'Donnell. He's the film's viewpoint character, which is a decision about which people like Schlesinger, Sorensen and McNamara have commented as follows. "For God's sakes, Kenny O'Donnell didn't have any role whatsoever in the missile crisis. He was a political appointment secretary to the President. That's absurd." However it's not that bad, really. Costner doesn't really do anything. He's a spin doctor, basically. He's been chosen as the viewpoint character because he's got access to the president and is in on all the meetings, but equally isn't important enough that anyone can start thinking this is "Costner Saves The World!" He's the one who gets domestic scenes with his wife and children, for instance.
The other thing people have objected to is a negative view of the US military, but... uh, yeah. Whatever.
While we're discussing accuracy, the real JFK had a habit of tape-recording his meetings at the White House. Much of the dialogue in this film is straight from those tapes. It shares a title with a (posthumous) book on the subject by Robert F. Kennedy, but it's actually based on a book by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow called The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. There had previously been a 1974 TV play on the subject called The Missiles of October, but this film is more complete. It includes some newly declassified material, for instance.
So what's it like as a film?
Firstly, I didn't get a sense of the Russians. This is clearly a deliberate decision and it has an interesting effect. An important theme of the film is the way it's almost impossible for JFK to communicate with Khrushchev and that as far as America is concerned, Russia might as well have been a black box. You give it input, it gives you output. You don't know how, why or from who. Maybe the hardliners are pulling the strings, or maybe Khrushchev's still in charge. Maybe they really do want to launch those nukes. There's no way of knowing and you sure as hell can't trust them. The only Russians we meet are through diplomatic channels or accepted alternatives, while the film has no scenes set in Moscow or even Havana. This is crucial. I'm sure you could tell a fascinating story about the Russian power struggles surrounding the same events and I hope that one day it'll be made and we'll be watching these two films back-to-back. However that's not this film. We only know what the president knows, which is far too little for safety.
However at the same time, this means we have to take the film's bad guys on trust. If you lived through 1962, you'll probably come out of this shaking. If you didn't, you might not connect emotionally as much as you probably should.
The actors are taking it all very seriously, of course. You can't fault their commitment. I've seen it said that some of the players here aren't being done justice, with people like Bundy, McNamara and Acheson basically being movie characters rather than (as they were) some of the most brilliant and powerful men in America. I'm not going to comment on that. I merely pass it on. I will however say that Kevin Costner's accent was distracting even when I was presuming it was authentic, whereas apparently it's an attempt at a Boston accent and so notorious in that city that they talk about a "Kevin Costner accent" much as the British did after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Did I find it scary? No. Did I even find it particularly tense? Not particularly. The film flopped at the box office, costing 80 million to make against a worldwide gross of 33 million. Its length perhaps didn't help, but it's also humourless, talky and overwhelmingly male. However I did find it interesting in a documentary way and I think I quite enjoyed it. I'd recommend watching it, although that said I can't imagine watching it twice. Its virtues are its historical authenticity, its intelligence and its detailed portrayal of the view from the top at a time of international crisis. It's painstaking in how it shows the American power structure, while very occasionally we get a glimpse of the iceberg that is the machinations of their Russian counterparts. It's not a traditional thriller because it doesn't have action and personal danger, but how often do you get to see a film where the world's in danger of being destroyed... and it's historically accurate?