The Missiles of October
The war movie genre can cover a lot of subgenres. I am a bit expansive in my determination of what movies are war movies. For instance, I do accept sci-fi movies if they have combat in them. This is why I consider “Aliens” to be a war movie. It features combat between Colonial Marines and Xenomorphs. I am actually stricter when it comes to Cold War movies. Although it has the word “war” in the name, I don’t include most war movies with Cold War settings to be war movies. Most of the contenders are espionage related. While I include espionage movies from WWII, I don’t usually include ones that are in the Cold War. It’s not a shooting war, after all. I made an exception for “The Missiles of October”. It is clearly a Cold War movie and it has no combat. Thank goodness. But it is the best war movie when it comes to showing how a crisis can escalate into war.
“The Missiles of October” was a television movie directed by Anthony Page (“Pueblo”). It was based on Robert Kennedy’s book “Thirteen Days”. The original showing in 1974 was popular and it was critically acclaimed. It was nominated for eight Emmys. Technical director Ernie Buttelman won for Outstanding Achievement in a Drama or Comedy Special. It was nominated for Best Drama or Comedy Special, Supporting Actor (Ralph Bellamy as Adlai Stevenson), and Outstanding Writing in an Original Teleplay (Stanley Greenberg). The title is a reference to Barbara Tuchman’s landmark book “The Guns of August”. In the movie, Kennedy mentions the book as an example of how nations can careen to war in spite of no government desiring it.
The movie begins with Kennedy (William Devane) giving a speech promising no aggression by Cuba will be allowed. This throws down the gauntlet that tells the audience that if anything was to occur, JFK will have to wimp out or go to the brink of war or beyond. He gets his chance to man up when it is discovered that the Soviets are secretly installing offensive nukes in Cuba. They will be only minutes away from most of the U.S. We then cross the globe to see Nikita Khrushchev (Howard Da Silva) claim to the Politburo that the missiles are purely defensive. This establishes the format of intercutting between the White House and the Kremlin. (Except in the case of the Kremlin, only Khruschev is ever seen, appropriate for a dictator.) Kennedy, on the other hand, interacts with ExComm consisting of valued advisors. What follows is a master’s class on weighing the pros and cons of actions. In the Kremlin, the thankfully sane Soviet leader is faced with determining how far the President, who he humiliated at a previous conference, will be willing to go. His is a gamble that could lead to nuclear war. Kennedy, seemingly the leader less likely to fire the first shot, is pressured by the realities of American politics. Plus, he has to deal with a hawk/dove divide in ExComm. Not surprisingly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA are pushing for a military solution whereas the politicians are pushing diplomacy. Obviously, if you have any historical literacy, you know how this ends. What the movie does is show you how we got there.
BEST SCENE: the first meeting of Kennedy with his advisers
BEST QUOTE: General: You’re in a pretty bad fix. JFK: You’re in it with me.
“The Missiles of October” has the look of a play taped for television. A modern remake might even do it live. It is very dialogue driven. And most of the dialogue is actual quotes. The cast is full of recognizable television veterans and the acting is excellent. The standouts are Devane and Da Silva. Devane is one of the best Kennedy portrayers and he gets the personality and accent right. (Contrast this with Martin Sheen as Bobby who took a lot of grief for his inconsistent accent.) I must mention that no actress has a significant role and only one woman speaks (Kennedy’s secretary Lincoln.) But this is an accurate reflection of the government in the 1960s.
If it wasn’t a recreation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one would think a movie that is mostly politicians talking would be boring. However, the crisis has the tension built in to where it can forego a soundtrack or a variety of sets and still be edge of your seat. There are no subplots to get non-famous people into the mix. None of the characters are fictional. This teleplay is one of the most historically accurate TV movies ever made. There are few significant examples of historical license. There are some historical sources that were not available at the time, so the movie does not have some of the more recent scholarship, but even today it is still the best coverage of the crisis aimed at a mass audience. It is a reflection of current state of historical movies that the movie “Thirteen Days”, which had access to all the records, is less accurate. That’s because it sacrifices some historical veracity for a more melodramatic presentation. The main character (Kevin Costner’s Special Assistant to the President) is given a much bigger role than the actual person. I am a fan of “Thirteen Days”, but I went with “Missiles” for my 100 Best because it is more true to the crisis. It gives us a look at both sides, so if you want to see how a crisis can escalate, you need to see the decision-making by both sides.
If you had seen this movie when it debuted in 1974, you most likely would have come away with the impression that we sure dodged a bullet in 1962. And we most likely would run out of luck (and sane leaders) by the 21st Century. Well, we’re still around and I’d like to think that both American Presidents and Soviet/Russian leaders have studied the Cuban Missile Crisis (and maybe have seen this movie, if they don’t believe in reading). We may not be in the Cold War anymore, but we’re bound to have more crises. Let’s elect someone who has seen this movie.
GRADE = A