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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

(continued from page 1)

On the evening of October 22, 1962, President Kennedy addressed the American people from the Oval Office:   Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.... It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union...   While the Pentagon went to "Defcon 2" (Defcon 5 is peace; Defcon 1 is war) and the world anxiously held its breath, Salinger remembers walking with Kennedy one morning through the Rose Garden and the president confiding in him: "'You know, if this [blockade] doesn't work, if we don't succeed in bringing this crisis to an end,' Kennedy said, 'hundreds of millions of people are going to get killed.'"

To assure that didn't happen, Kennedy took a further step by initiating secret "back-channel" communications with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, using Robert Kennedy, Pierre Salinger, American journalists and two KGB officials in Washington, thereby being able to bypass both the Joint Chiefs and the Politburo.   Finally, on Sunday, October 28, the Soviet government blinked and agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, and in return Kennedy agreed to withdraw Jupiter ballistic missiles from Turkey. But according to Salinger, Kennedy had already planned to withdraw those missiles four months before the crisis, as they were considered obsolete and were scheduled to be replaced by submarine-launched Polaris missiles. "But this way, Kennedy allowed Khrushchev to save face with his country," says Salinger.

Negotiating a peaceful settlement that Sunday, however, left the Joint Chiefs irate. They believed a U.S. attack on Cuba was still justified. "We've been had!" fumed Adm. George Anderson. And Gen. Curtis Le May angrily insisted, "Why don't we just go in and make a strike anyway!" The morning after the resolution to the crisis, Kennedy told Salinger that "the military have gone mad!"

JFK's diplomacy had left the military and intelligence officers more insistent than ever that he was "soft on communism," says Salinger, adding that shortly before he was assassinated, Kennedy had planned on dropping the embargo on Cuba and normalizing relations with that nation. Otherwise, Kennedy told Salinger, "The Soviet Union is going to completely run that place and we don't want them dominating that area." Salinger also reveals that Kennedy planned on opening relations with China, but couldn't do so until his second term, "because people would label him a Communist," says Salinger.

Costner, who was seven years old during the crisis and living with his family in Compton, California, remembers those tense days as "stirrings of things." He sits on the steps outside his movie-set trailer and talks of hearing about bomb shelters and a hoarding of food. "But my parents were very careful to not let on that there was imminent danger. I just remember there was definitely something in the air. And I remember getting under the desk in school and doing the drills. It was great for me," he says with a laugh, "because it wasn't math! I mean, my theory on it was just as good as anybody else's, because you knew bomb shelters weren't going to work, so for me it was extended recess."

As the crew busily prepares for the next scene, Thirteen Days director Roger Donaldson--who previously worked with Costner on the hit 1987 spy thriller No Way Out--confers briefly with Costner and Bruce Greenwood on the last shot of the day. Greenwood, who researched voluminously for his portrayal of JFK, admits he watched "hundreds of hours of tapes," read a stack of books "that literally comes up to my belt," and also had a breakfast meeting with Salinger to help prepare for the role.

"To be able to sit in the same room and talk with someone who had actually been there made it very personal for me," Greenwood says. "All I knew about what happened was through history books, but it was a profound jump to be placed in this room with a guy who was in the middle of it all--it really helped place me there."   Greenwood feels that what will surprise audiences most about Thirteen Days, due out December 22, is how close the world actually came to annihilation. "They'll be simply astounded that it was only through the efforts of a few good men that Armageddon was sidestepped," says Greenwood, who starred as the villainous husband opposite Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones in last year's surprise hit Double Jeopardy. "The pressure that was on [John] Kennedy to respond militarily and politically was incalculable. And that strength of character and courage to avoid making a decision that would have changed the world forever is something people maybe don't quite realize."

Costner figures that the resolve the Kennedy brothers showed in refusing to bow to military pressure stemmed directly from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, which had been initiated by President Eisenhower a year before JFK took office. "When the Kennedys came into office, they were really being pushed around by [long-time CIA director] Allen Dulles and these military guys saying, 'Hey, this plan has been in the works for two years, whereas you just won the election, so don't fuck this up for us!' And Kennedy, being new and inexperienced and giving a certain amount of respect to them thought, 'Oh, OK.' Yet none of those guys were standing around to accept the blame. And there were the Kennedys, like on a beach with a giant tsunami coming to sweep them up. But to their credit, I think the Bay of Pigs is what saved us all in the end because they didn't repeat the weakness, or maybe what people perceived as weakness."

Costner, Greenwood and Culp are summoned back on set for what will be one of the final shots of the film--a walk back from the Rose Garden along the portico. The setting sun of a gorgeous autumn afternoon is duplicated on the soundstage and it illuminates the enormous White House set with a brilliant orange hue. As the three actors pass the white neoclassical pillars of the cloister and walk out of the frame, Donaldson keeps the camera stationary on the long shadows being cast by these men on the outside wall of the Oval Office. It's a truly poignant moment, one that will have enormous visual impact in the finished film. After some minor adjustments in the blocking, a second take is filmed and deemed the better of the two.

Filming is wrapped for the weekend, but Costner stays to view the scene on a playback monitor. A contented smile spreads across his face. "You know, the Kennedys really were golden during this and the world definitely needed them," says an obviously wistful Costner, watching the flickering video images of the last scene. "I think if you believe in God at all, you believe God had his hand on this country and on them. This is our tipping of the hat to some true heroism that occurred through sheer intellect and the power of these young men's character."


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