TV Movie: ‘The Missiles of October’ (1974) (155 minutes)

This is such a great piece of work. It’s a TV movie but it’s shot almost like a TV play and it takes for its basis Robert Kennedy’s memoir ‘Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missiles Crisis’. A Kevin Costner-starring film ‘Thirteen Days’ made 26 years later also covers the same ground but it has both interesting stylistic differences and a differing content too as, in those 26 years, more information got declassified and could therefore be released into the public sphere.

In this film, ‘The Missiles of October‘ one gets to see what is happening both in the U.S. and in the U.S.S.R.; we see how one action from one side plays off against another action and how both sides knew what they did would inexorably lead to a response. In ‘Thirteen Days‘, the interesting difference is that one only gets to see what is happening only within the U.S. government. When offering critique of ‘Thirteen Days’, some said that they’d desired that Soviet perspective but the response from the film-makers seemed a strong one: that, at the time, the U.S. government couldn’t be sure what was going on in the U.S.S.R. so the enclosed, pressurised, “blind” perspective within which they made decisions was therefore on offer to viewers too.

That second screen grab – the guy with the food and the phone to his ear – is the character of the ABC news reporter John A. Scali, who played a vital role as a back channel go-between, going through the KGB spy, Alexander Feklisov, so that Kennedy and Khrushchev could try and extricate each other, and everyone else in the world, from this God-awful mess. In ‘The Missiles of October’, he’s shown to be a lot more bullish in his dealings with Feklisov, bucking against Soviet suggestions that the U.S. remove its missiles from Turkey (one of the reasons for Khrushchev placing missiles in Cuba in the first place) as part of a deal. Yet in ‘Thirteen Days’, with time having elapsed, he’s shown to be far more receptive to that idea. Whether that difference was due to more information declassified or due to Scali being the real life U.S. ambassador to the U.N. at the time of the making of ‘The Missiles of October’, and it wouldn’t have played well for him to be so understanding of the Soviet position, remains to be seen.

Also, that idea of exchanging the missiles in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba, which is all dismissed out of hand in ‘The Missiles of October’, plays a major point in ‘Thirteen Days’ with John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy colluding together to leak that idea to the heavy weight journalist and thinker Walter Lippmann – someone who was of the opinion that the Soviets were expected and entitled to have a sphere of influence in the world – and get that possibility of a deal out in the ether though his newspaper column.

Another difference between the two films is that it looks like the real hero of the hour was Kennedy’s speech-writer and adviser, Ted Sorenson. When all the walls were closing in on everybody, the U.S. received a message from Khrushchev that offered a way out yet while it was being analysed and translated, a much more hard-line message – supposedly also from Khrushchev  – came in, one which reneged on the previous offer. Was that one from Khrushchev too? Was it in his name but there’d actually been a coup in the Soviet Union? Was Khrushchev now a puppet, being worked from behind by his own hardline element? It was Ted Sorenson who convinced Kennedy to pretend that the second one didn’t exist and use the initial message as the basis for mutual escape. In ‘Thirteen Days’, the heroic focus is more on Kenny O’Donnell, since that was the role being played by the star, Kevin Costner, which many, who were there at the time, found hard to swallow.

Anyway, I’d recommend watching both ‘The Missiles of October’ and ‘Thirteen Days’ and then do your own reading. Docu-drama films get hard time sometimes because they’ve only got a certain space of, perhaps, two and a half hours and so they just won’t be able to get everything in while still trying to make an interesting, flowing film. There are plenty of books, documentaries and internet pages too. For instance, the 1992 documentary ‘The Missiles of October: What The World Didn’t Know’ contains a nugget from the mouth of Robert Kennedy.

Many know about this idea of ‘false flags’, meaning doing some act of malfeasance but under the guise of (holding the oppositions ‘flag’) the entity that you want to attack, on whom you want to blame the act. See the USS Maine , the Reichstag Fire for just two examples. There are documents that state that U.S. hardliners over Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary Cuba wanted to do their own version, with Operation Northwoods. Ideas which John Kennedy angrily dismissed in disgust but, in this 1992 documentary, which uses the voice recordings secretly captured by JFK, it’s Robert Kennedy who proposes just such an action. If they can pretend that Cuba have sunk a U.S. ship, which they themselves sink, or if the U.S. pretends that their military base in Guantanamo Bay was attacked, when they themselves attack it, the U.S. would have the pretext to invade Cuba, destroy the missiles and perhaps overthrow Fidel. Without the pretext, they would have had a hard time justifying their actions as the whole point would be to destroy the evidence, the reason why.

Other points of interest are that when the Kennedy defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, visited Cuba on the fortieth anniversary of the crisis, he found out to his horror that while the U.S. had been considering an all out invasion of Cuba before the missiles had  reached an operational state that some missiles were already able to be used in defence. So, an invasion would probably have led to nuclear conflict straight away. Additionally, I can’t remember where I read it but someone on the inside of the administration testified to the idea that, as a last resort, Kennedy would have publicly agreed to withdrawing the missiles from Turkey, knowing full well that it would have been that or nuclear war and also knowing that he would have been impeached. He’d have taken a hit for the whole world to pull everyone out of the hole. JFK would have figuratively done a Clint Eastwood jumping into the Line of Fire 13 months before he’d have literally had no choice in the matter.

The film(s) are also just an inspiration on the merits of whenever oneself is facing one’s own difficult problem, to just hang in and try to – as the Americans say – ‘work the problem’. The Cuban Missiles Crisis was not only seemingly impossible to resolve but the penalty for failing to find a resolution could not have been greater. A solution was somehow hashed out and we’re all here as a result.

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