This isn't going to be everybody's favorite movie. The production values don't shoot out the lights. All the sets are indoors. There's no motion to speak of. The whole shebang seems static and talky.
Yet it's an important document and in some ways well done. If much of the dialog sounds stilted it's because it was taken from official sources. So we get a lot of formal speech and very little in the way of offhand nudges. But the acting, at least in the important roles, is really pretty good. DeVane as JFK, Martin Sheen as his brother Bobby, and Howard DaSilva as Krushchev are outstanding.
Most impressive is the way this film takes us back to what now seems almost like a Golden Age, despite the missile crisis and the insanity of Mutual Assured Destruction.
It was a time when a president would make certain that the meetings were attended by an old Cold Warrior, Dean Acheson, even though Acheson was presumed to represent a dated point of view and was only a private citizen at the time, because the president wanted to hear all points of view during brainstorming sessions.
In discussing those planning sessions, Robert MacNamara describes President Kennedy leaning towards military action in order to save face, and one of the participants saying to him, "Mister President, you're wrong." ("That took guts," says MacNamara in Errol Morris's documentary, "The Fog of War.") I was in school at the time of these events and no one knew anything except what was released to the media. If we'd known how close we were to war I believe church attendance would have soared.
Many incidents and coincidences came together to get the world out of that tight spot, chief among them the reluctance of both sides to engage in war. Both Krushchev and Kennedy had a pretty good idea of how that worked. JFK had written a book about it. More than that, imagine a president who is able to muse that he recently finished reading Barbara Tuchman's history of the accidental beginning of World War I, "The Guns of August". "If I could do it, I'd send a copy to every commanding officer aboard the blockading destroyers -- not that they'd read it." The resolution of the conflict, despite missteps and mistakes on both sides, hinged on a single event. Krushchev, depressed, wrote an ameliorative letter to Kennedy, saying that he understood Kennedy's position, and that he, Krushchev was willing to dismantle the Cuban missiles in return for a guarantee that the USA would neither launch nor aid any invasion of Cuba in the future. (Using anti-Castro Cubans, we had invaded the island at the Bay of Pigs, which was a miserable failure.) At last both sides seemed to have what they wanted. The USA was getting rid of the missile threat, and the USSR was getting a guarantee of Cuba's sovereignty.
Alas, under political pressure from his "war camp" at home, Krushcheve wrote a second letter, much harder in tone, reneging on earlier proposals and adding demands which the USA could not grant. Two mutually conflicting proposals a day apart. What to do? What they did was follow Robert Kennedy's suggestion. They ignored the second letter and responded only to the first. More fumbles and confusion followed but the crisis was eventually resolved with both sides compromising, but not in ways that jeopardized their own defenses.
The crisis required -- and got -- deft handling at the top and cautious but effective diplomacy. That's why I used the expression "Golden Age" before.
As drama, this isn't much. No villains, no fist fights, and not a gun in sight. Yet for its educational value alone, in our somewhat history-shy culture, it ought to be seen by everyone, especially now.
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