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Profile in Courage

In the political thriller Thirteen Days, Kevin Costner explores the Cuban Missile Crisis and how John and Robert Kennedy saved the world.
David Giammarco
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

A weary-looking Kenneth O'Donnell slips quietly through a side door into the Oval Office, looking for the two men who just saved the world from nuclear annihilation. But the room is deserted. In a moment of reflection, he pauses to gaze at the distinctive features of the world's most powerful office: the presidential seal emblazoned across the deep blue plush carpeting, the Carolina oak rocking chair at the end of the couch, the walls adorned with etchings of old naval clippers, and the large mahogany desk.   But what catches his eye is a small wooden plaque on the desk: it's the Breton's Fisherman's Prayer: "Oh Lord, Thy Sea is Great, My Boat So Small." He stares at the plaque, realizing the profundity of such a humble plea. Suddenly, the stillness is broken by, "We're out here."

O'Donnell looks through the open French door leading to the Rose Garden. Stepping through the billowing curtains onto the portico, he joins Jack and Bobby Kennedy, who gaze quietly across the South Lawn towards the Washington Monument. The three men try to verbalize their overwhelming emotions, try to make sense of the last 13 days--the most harrowing of their lives--but mere words can't express their feelings.

Instead, the highly charged silence among these old friends speaks volumes. After a long pause, O'Donnell quietly picks up Jack's football. Without missing a beat, JFK strides across the lawn, leaps up in the air, and catches a perfect pass.   In October 1962, fumbling was not an option.

Dressed in worn-in gray suit and wing tips, Kevin Costner begins loosening his narrow tie as he steps from October 1962 into December 1999 outside the soundstage at Barwick Studios in Los Angeles. For the past two months, the actor has been time-traveling as O'Donnell to the most frightening episode in Cold War history for the $80 million political thriller Thirteen Days. During the nearly two-week-long Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the future of the human race teetered precariously on the edge of extinction.

With his hair shorn short and darkened, and a collection of pens protruding from his shirt pocket protector, Costner's somewhat frumpy, working-class look is in sharp contrast to the polished gleam of JFK (played by Bruce Greenwood) and RFK (played by Steven Culp). That's because Costner is not the hero of the piece, but rather the window into the story, a sort of everyman narrative device.

Kenneth O'Donnell was one of Jack's and Bobby's most trusted confidants. He had been classmates with Robert Kennedy at Harvard and later served with him on the Senate Rackets Committee investigating the Mob-corrupted Teamsters Union. O'Donnell, who died in 1977, was a tough-as-nails Boston Irish political operator who was a key aide in both JFK's Senate and presidential campaigns and was a charter member of what the press had dubbed Kennedy's "Irish Mafia." Although officially known as special assistant to the president and presidential appointments secretary, O'Donnell was, in actuality, JFK's chief political adviser.

"Kenny was a very strong guy, a very loyal guy," says Costner, who read a number of books, listened to taped interviews of O'Donnell, and spoke extensively with Kevin O'Donnell--cofounder of the Internet service provider EarthLink--about his father. "Kenny even carried a gun at the White House because he considered himself the last line of defense. This was a decorated hero, with over 30 missions during WWII. He was a very courageous man."

Costner is walking off the set towards his trailer. In his hands, he carries the Kennedy football; in his voice, tinges of the O'Donnell Boston Irish brogue. Costner's trailer has just been adorned with sparkling Christmas lights and decorations--courtesy of his second-oldest daughter, 13-year-old Lily--and he congratulates her on a job well done. Costner's 11-year-old son Joe soon shows up on his bicycle and the three begin discussing their plans for Christmas, now only a couple weeks away. The warm afternoon sun is beating down and Costner removes his jacket and tosses it inside the trailer. He rolls up his sleeves and begins throwing the football with Joe.

"You know, the Kennedys have endured such a large amount of tabloidism over the last 20 years," Costner says as he continues tossing the vintage pigskin. "But my feeling is that no matter what anybody thinks about the Kennedys, in those 13 days they were absolutely golden. And if other individuals had been in that position, I think the legacy we would have been sharing in the year 2000--instead of all the bright lights and parties when we hit the millennium--would be 150 million people dead. It would make the Vietnam War pale in comparison. And if other men had been in power, they would have swallowed hook, line and sinker the recommendations of the military."

Indeed, because from the moment the Central Intelligence Agency and McGeorge Bundy showed Kennedy the U-2 reconnaissance photos on the morning of October 15, 1962, air strikes and an invasion of Cuba were the only solutions being recommended--demanded--by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their assessment was that the Soviets and the Cubans were creating a missile launch capability in the San Cristobal area of Cuba, and the medium-range ballistic missiles being installed would be operational in less then two weeks. If fired, they would have been able to reach as far north as Washington, D.C. within a matter of minutes.   "The military's only position on solving the crisis was to go in and bomb," recounts Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger, now 75, at his home in Washington, D.C. "But Kennedy's view was that if that was done, a war would erupt with the Soviet Union, resulting in a nuclear exchange. Eventually, it was Bobby who came up with the final solution of bringing in the naval blockade around Cuba to make sure the Soviets couldn't get any ships in there with more information and more missiles."

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