) and Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp).
On an uneventful morning during President Kennedy's term in office, a series of disturbing photographs are brought before the administration. U2 spy plane coverage reveals that the Soviet Union has started to deploy offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba in secret.
The military brass advocates swift intervention by the Army to eliminate the threat to U.S. national security, but the more levelheaded Kennedy initiates a quarantine of Cuba to prevent more Soviet nukes from coming in while retaining the option for diplomacy. While the generals try to arrange a war and the Soviets try to run the blockade, Jack, Bobby, and Kenny have to maneuver the political field to keep the crisis from escalating into all-out nuclear warfare.
- Adlai Stevenson's exchange with Valerian Zorin.
- During his final meeting with Robert Kennedy, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin also shows himself to be a good man at heart who doesn't want a war anymore than his U.S. counterparts do. As he assures Bobby, "there are other good men".
- American Political System
- Anti-Air: Comes into play at two points.
- First when the Navy begins making low-altitude photo passes over Cuba. To keep it so that the Russians did not shoot at them, the planes come back riddled with "birdstrikes."
- The second instance is when Major Anderson is shot down.
- Ass in Ambassador:
- Subverted; everyone thinks that Adlai Stevenson is too weak to stand up to the Soviets, and he initially gives this impression (he is the first one in the movie to suggest a trade with the Soviets to get the missiles out and is probably the only guy in the know that continues to advocate diplomacy when everyone else is looking at immediate retaliatory action), but he soon proves them wrong.
- Ambassador Zorin, and the other bloc diplomats provide a more straight example.
- Authority in Name Only: A major plotline of the movie is just how much (or little) control over the complex system known as the United States government President Kennedy actually has.
- This is most apparent in his dealings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, best summarized by this exchange (Kennedy has just been informed that SAC has gone to DEFCON 2, when he only wanted to elevate the DEFCON level to 3):
General Max Taylor: Technically, SAC has the statutory authority-
President Kennedy: (slams hand on desk) I have the authority! I am the commander-in-chief of the United States, and I say when we go to war!
- Another example is the US continuing to test both nuclear weapons and missiles in the midst of the crisis (due to the White House neglecting to put a stop to it), making the US seem like the aggressor.
President Kennedy: (after learning of a US missile test) Well, who the hell authorized this missile test?
Kenny O'Donnell: Communicate with the Soviets? We can't communicate with the Pentagon, and it's just across the Goddamn river!
- There are also several instances where other figures opine that they think Kennedy is too soft, not only from the Joint Chiefs but also from within his own administration and later Congress.
Dean Acheson: Let's hope appeasement doesn't run in families. I fear weakness does.
- Having President Kennedy at least appear to have some control over the situation (even beyond the US military) is one of O'Donnell's biggest concerns. Prior to the speech announcing the US quarrantine, Kennedy is agitated having just stormed out of a contentious meeting with Congressional leaders over the quarrantine (many of them wanted stronger action, i.e. air strikes) and the impending TV broadcast isn't calming him down at all.
O'Donnell: I want you to take a minute.
Kennedy: I haven't got a minute!
O'Donnell: You're the President of the United States. They can wait for you.
- Balance of Power: One of the main reasons not to start shooting. The A and B are the US and Soviet Union, but plenty of C's and D's play various roles as well.
- Blatant Lies:
- Subverted in a diplomatic meeting between the Soviet ambassador and President Kennedy, where the Soviets seem to lie right through their teeth when Kennedy asks them point blank if they are placing offensive weapons in Cuba. In fact, the Soviets seem to regard the missiles they're introducing in Cuba as defensive in nature, but it gives them an advantage that the U.S. simply cannot tolerate to ensure its own security.
- An obviously bullet-riddled airplane is claimed to have run into a "flock of sparrows."
Petty Officer: Were those 20 mm or 40 mm sparrows, sir?
- Buzzing The Deck: A pair of fighter jets are seen buzzing a Soviet freighter that made it past the blockade.
- Cats Have Nine Lives: Alluded to by Adlai: "I'm an old political cat, Kenny, but I've got one life left." It's a humble and graceful embrace of his ending political career (or at least as it seems to him and everyone at the time).
- The Coup:
- Comes up when the Kennedy White House receives two letters from the Soviets, one from Nikita Khrushchev himself in the middle of the night with several errors and indicating a stressed out premier, and a later one the next day which is much more hardline and more official. U.S. officials come to the conclusion that the Soviet Union has had a a coup and Khrushchev had been replaced with a far more militant government. Eventually they figure out that there wasn't one, Khrushchev is just trying to appease the warmongers and General Rippers in his own government.
- Also invoked as to why, following President Kennedy's huge verbal spat with Generals Powell and LeMay over DEFCON status, the administration can't just fire them as Bobby suggests - it risks looking like there had been an attempted coup (it's not made clear who would be couping whom, but it would look really bad either way) and in any case would seriously weaken the US's bargaining position by making its military strength look compromised.
- Cue the Sun: In the climax, as Kenny and his wife go to bed, he says, "If the sun comes up tomorrow, it's only because of the will of good men." Cut to a shot of an exploding nuke which morphs into the rising sun the next morning.
- Darkest Hour: Really Darkest Day - Saturday, October 27th. It begins with the biggest chance in a week to find a diplomatic solution suddenly go up in smoke thanks to the Kremlin's latest message. It continues with several incidents with U-2s being chased and fired upon including Major Anderson's being shot down and Kennedy having to say no to General Taylor's demands for immediate retaliation despite saying he would. It ends with Bobby and Kenny going to a late-night secret meeting at the Department of Justice with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin for one last chance at diplomacy before the US initiates airstrikes against Cuba on Monday. En route, they drive by the Soviet embassy, where protestors are silently picketing outside its gates like they're resigned to a fate of nuclear hellfire, and where they notice something else going up in smoke:
Bobby: You smell that?
(Camera cuts chimneys with smoke pouring out of them)
Kenny: They're burning their documents.
Bobby: They think we're going to war.
- Deadpan Snarker: Margaret, the White House operator.
Commander Ecker: Commander Ecker
Margaret: Commander Ecker, this is the White House Operator. Please hold...
Commander Ecker: Shit.
Margaret: Honey, you don't know what shit is.
- Deliberately Monochrome: Done at times, probably to mimic the typical images of the era.
- Didn't Think This Through:
- Kennedy felt this way about the airstrike action in dealing with the missile sites. His reaction to being told by his military advisors that after such airstrikes the Soviet response would be to do nothing was to repeat "Nothing?!" in an incredulous tone of voice.
Kennedy:We are going to be killing Soviet personnel - I guarantee you they will do something.
- Even the hawks advocating military responses seem to have this thought nagging through their heads as they argue, at seperate times, that the only option left for the Soviets in response to US airstrikes would be one they couldn't take and that escalation in response to a US invasion of Cuba would be stopped by cooler heads before "that next step".
- The End of the World as We Know It: Impending nuclear war. Ultimately averted, but they get close several times.
- Freudian Trio: Jack would be the Id, tending to act impulsively; Bobby is the Superego, leading the people coming up with the ideas, and Kenny is the Ego, cooling Jack's impulses and pressing Bobby for better solutions.
- From Bad to Worse: The last third of the movie is basically a series of these. Alluded to by name by Bobby when the situation starts spiraling down. Ultimately subverted when the Americans discover they were misinterpretating the recent events and things are not nearly as bad as they seemed at first.
- General Ripper:
- Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Curtis LeMay seems awfully eager for shooting to start - and yes, he really was like that. He cut his teeth killing Japanese civilians for Freedom. Although he's probably the most prominent example, in general the high-up military leaders are commonly depicted as Cold Warriors with an eagerness to fight a Soviet and slightly-too-itchy trigger fingers.
- The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Anderson, while at the Pentagon monitoring the caro ships is at first downright condescending to his civilian boss, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. However, as Authority Equals Asskicking this gets reversed.
- Gilligan Cut: At one point Jack and Kenny are arguing about Jack's schedule:
Kenny: You don't show for Chicago, everyone'll know there's something going on.
Jack: I don't care! Just cancel...
Kenny: Forget it! I'm not calling and canceling on (Mayor Richard J.) Daley! You call and cancel on Daley.
Jack: You're scared to cancel on Daley?
Kenny: You're damn right, I'm scared! (Bobby also shakes his head.)
Jack: Well, I'm not!
Kenny: Oh. (Aside to Bobby) Watch this.
(Next day in Chicago)
Daley: Welcome to Chicago, Mr. President.
Jack: (Exchanging an uncomfortable glance with a stone-faced Kenny) Mr. Mayor, I wouldn't miss this for the world.
- Heroic BSOD: Discussed. After an early meeting about how to react to the missile threat.
Jack: You know they think I froze in there.
Bobby: You didn't freeze.
Kenny: You did exactly what you should've done - you stayed out of the corner. You didn't decide.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Kenny and the Kennedy brothers.
- He Who Fights Monsters: Dean Acheson, one of Kennedy's advisors, saying that the country's been "at war with the Russkies for twenty years", advises Kennedy to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, essentially, by invading Cuba and hoping that Russia doesn't have the nerve to let the retaliation lead up to nuclear war. His justification was that "the only thing [the Russians] understand is force." In real life, Acheson was a tad bit more moderate, with this reasoning more in line with colleague Curtis LeMay.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: The film was criticized by historians and then still-living members of Kennedy's administration because the movie intensely exaggerates the role that Kenny O'Donnell played in preventing the crisis from escalating. The chief agent in the American government who pulled the administration together during the crisis was in fact Ted Sorensen, who's instead relegated to such a minor role that he's barely noticeable.
- History Repeats: What Kennedy wants to defy. He brings up the example of the lead-up to World War One, and then plays out a similar scenario in the page quote at the top.
- Hope Spot: Khrushchev sends a back-channel negotiator to probe the possibility of a deal, then sends a letter offering a way out of the crisis. Before the night is out, however, another message arrives with a much more hard-line tone that sends the situation spiraling down again. Subverted, however, in that after a lot of debate and hand-wringing the Americans eventually decide that the first message was the genuine message, and the second was merely political posturing on Khruschev's part in order to satisfy his own hard liners; they ignore the second message and respond to the first, with good results.
- Hot Line: Averted. The Hot Line did not exist at the time (in fact it was created as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis), with messages going by coded telegram This resulted (as in the film), in the US spending 12 hours decrypting Khrushchev's offer to remove the missiles in return for the US not invading Cuba. While doing that, a second message arrived, being more threatening, demanding that the US remove missiles from Turkey in exchange for the USSR doing the same in Cuba. ExComm thought about it, accepted the first offer and accepted the second discreetly later.
- Implausible Deniability: A Navy Commander, under orders not to report being shot at while on a reconnaissance mission over Cuba, tries to claim the numerous bullet holes in his aircraft were from bird strikes. Lampshaded by his crew chief: "Were those 20 mm or 40 mm sparrows, sir?"
- In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: Defied; despite how much the General Ripper hardliners advocated for escalation and "chicken" game theory, in the end, the more level-headed and open-minded people on both sides prevailed. Defying this trope is one of the major implied thoughts going through President Kennedy's head throughout the movie—he knows how quickly things could escalate to nuclear war, and how that needs to be avoided at all costs. The other main protagonist, near the end of the movie, notes how "the sun came up. Every day the sun comes up, it says something about us."
- Insistent Terminology: A blockade is an act of war - what the US puts into place is a quarantine. Lampshaded when Kenny mentions that it better translate into Russian the way they want it to.
- Intrepid Reporter: An early obstacle for the White House when they want to keep the fact that they know about the missile sites out of the public's knowledge until Kennedy himself can announce it on TV - having the story break before a course of action is decided upon would cause a great deal of public chaos and ruin the administration's surprise advantage. However, it's quite difficult to hide the fact that your own military is conducting a previously unannounced military exercise in Puerto Rico or the troop movements that disrupt rail schedules all across the Southeast, especially in a country with the First Amendment. This comes to a head when the New York Times is about to blow the lid off on the missiles before Kennedy can announce the US government's action. Jack is able to get the editor to hold off by telling him to tell his writers that they would be saving lives, including their own.
- Irrevocable Order: Discussed - President Kennedy uses the example of the just-publised The Guns of August talking about the lead-up to World War I. He notes of how all the major powers had detailed war plans ready to go long before August 1914, but that those plans were outdated because the theories and tactics utilized were based on the last war. But it was all they knew so the orders went out, couldn't be rescinded, and hundreds of thousands of lives were wasted on a four-year stalemate.
- Landing Gear Shot: An undercarriage shot of a B-52 taking off is used to mark when DEFCON 2 had been ordered.
- Locked Out of the Loop: Pierre Salinger, at least during the first part before Kennedy makes his official announcement, since before then they're trying to keep it quiet.
- Missing Man Formation: At the end over Major Anderson's casket.
- Mood Whiplash: The jubilation of the White House celebration after things have settled down is undercut moments later when President Kennedy excuses himself and proceeds to solemnly dictate a letter of condolence to the family of the pilot who was shot down and killed during the crisis.
- Naval Blockade: Kennedy goes with this instead of an airstrike to deal with ships carrying missiles to Cuba. Since a blockade is technically an act of war, they decide to call it a quarantine.
- Not So Different:
- Although we don't see much of the Soviet side of things, it's implied that Khruschev is having to deal with a lot of the same problems — including a rather hot-headed faction of hardliners who are a bit too eager for shooting to start — that Kennedy is dealing with.
Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to the US: You (Robert Kennedy) are a good man. Your brother is a good man. I can assure you there are other good men.
- A humorous example occurs when ExComm is reviewing a message from Khruschev, at the height of the crisis:
CIA Director: The analysts say it was written by someone under considerable stress.
'President Kennedy: Glad to know we're not alone.
- Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering: The UN. As great as Adlai Stevenson's line to Zorin was, this was mostly political posturing. If the shooting had really started, there wouldn't be much the UN or anyone else could do about it. The biggest impact it had was in morale and propaganda - up to this point the Soviets had been presenting their actions in Cuba as a purely defensive operation, an argument that was more difficult to make once the missile sites became publicly known. Stevenson's speech gave the US additional political cover to keep the blockade and the subsequent pressure at the bargaining table with the Soviets.
Kennedy: (quoting Sun-Tzu) Wars are moral contests, and they're won in the temples before they're ever fought.
- Nuke 'em: About as close as we ever came to it.
- OOC Is Serious Business: Defied initially during the first week or so after Kennedy first learns of the missiles via U-2 photos - O'Donnell pushes Kennedy to maintain his travel schedule even though it means he won't be around Washington much to discuss their plan of action, leaving it to Robert to lead; with all the military exercises and troop movements the press finds out about, any disruption to Kennedy's schedule would have been major red flags. Once they do decide on a blockade action it's then played straight, first with Kennedy cutting the Chicago trip short and then Kenny canceling all of the President's schedule on Monday to prepare for the TV broadcast.
- Operation Blank: The press gets ahold of an Operation Ortsac in Puerto Rico, which is just Castro spelled backwards.
Kenny: (after seeing it is just Castro backwards) Kinda simple for the Pentagon.
- Pet the Dog: The Kennedys are thrown a bone by LeMay, of all people, when he agrees with their decision to hold off punitive air strikes on missile sites that have shot down one of their aircraft.
- Plausible Deniability:
- Exploited at several points (by both the US and Soviets) in order to maintain a publicly strong stand against the other while trying to find a common ground with which they can agree to via diplomatic backchannels (see Kennedy's Trial Balloon Question below).
- It plays a critical role in the final agreement to step away from the brink - for political reasons the US cannot explicitly link the withdrawl of their Jupiter missiles in Turkey to the removal of Soviet missles from Cuba. However, by withdrawing the missles six months later and noting that the Jupiter missles are already obsolete and have been scheduled for withdrawl before all this went down, Kennedy can still offer the missles as an exchange for Khruschev to placate his own hardliners.
- Playing Sick: Kennedy has to do this to get away from Chicago so he can get back to Washington and deal with the crisis.
Kenny: Tomorrow the president's going to have a cold.
Pierre: A cold? Is there anything else?
Kenny: Uh, yeah, how bad it is is up to you.
- Running The Blockade: After Kennedy institutes a "quarantine" around Cuba, the Soviets, not really knowing what to do, decide to send their freighters through anyway. At least one of them slips past the Navy at some point before being spotted again.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Discussed - Bobby at one point explains the rather detailed process of how important government officials and their families would be evacuated from Washington should missile launch be detected in Cuba, then ends with this:
Bobby: Of course, that's for morale. Missiles only take five minutes to get here.
- Sidelong Glance Biopic
- Sins of Our Fathers: The fact that Jack and Bobby's father is Joseph P. Kennedy, who was ambassador to Britain on the eve of World War 2 and was a major advocate of the policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany, is used several times in the movie by those who wanted a tougher stance made on the Soviets and thought that Kennedy was being too soft.
- Slave to PR: A major constraint on the range of actions available to all the players. Many of the decisions depicted can be explained as wanting to take a particular action while shedding as much of the negative PR that would come with it as possible. It's partly why, for instance:
- The US took any action at all over the missiles in Cuba (militarily-speaking they didn't affect the balance of power much - the political and diplomatic damage, however, would have been catastrophic)
- Why President Kennedy had to maintain his travel schedule to Connecticut and later to Chicago even though it took him away from his advisors (canceling would have raised red flags in the press and in Moscow),
- Why the New York Times was going to blow the lid off on the missiles (the editor witheld on the Bay of Pigs and got raked over the coals for it)
- Why the US calls its action a "quarantine" - a blockade is an act of war and leaving it termed as such would have given the Soviets a much stronger incentive to retaliate violently.
- Why Khrushchev sent that second letter formally asking for the withdrawl of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey - Khrushchev himself faced great pressure from hardliners in his own government to take a tough stand as well against the United States.
- Why the trading away of the missiles in Turkey had to be under the table—the US could not be seen as taking an action detrimental to an ally's security under threat.
- Storyboarding the Apocalypse: See the page quote. Kennedy uses this to illustrate just how easily the whole thing could end very badly for everyone.
- Stock Footage: Because nothing sets a mood like vintage shots of exploding nukes.
- Taking A Third Option: Many of the decisions pursued by Kennedy boil down to avoiding an either/or mentality that seems to pervade through the thinking of the hawkish elements of the administration. For instance, a blockade was not even considered as an option initially - the first day that Kennedy was notified of the missiles' existence, the options that were discussed were international pressure or an airstrike.
- Talking through Technique: Provides the page quote for a reason - both sides could not rely on official diplomatic communications alone to get their messages across due to both the speed of events unfolding as well as each side having so many other parties to muddy up the message (see Authority in Name Only above). Directly referenced by Defense Secretary McNamara in arguing with Admiral Anderson over the firing of star shells (McNamara had mistakenly believed the US Navy was firing on the cargo ship Grozny itself, rather than what amounted to warning shots):
"This is not a blockade. This is language! A new vocabulary, the likes of which the world has never seen. This is President Kennedy communicating with Secretary Khruschev!"
- Tantrum Throwing: Jack has a couple scenes of this, one when he finds out someone ordered DEFCON 2 without his consent, he doesn't actually throw things, but probably would have if he'd been holding something, and another when he finds out that the Russian missiles have become operational making immediate action required. He throws the report across the room in this case.
- Trial Balloon Question: With the blockade just put into effect and tension ratcheting up, Kennedy floats the idea of trading away US missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing the missiles in Cuba. Even though this is done via the opinion section of the Washington Post through a willing third-party writer in Walter Lippmann, it's obvious to those in the know the President was behind it, and tempers flare even further.
Kennedy: It's a goddamn trial balloon, Kenny!
O'Donnell: Well, somebody better publicly deny it! Because there's only one way the world's gonna read this: we'd sell out one of our friends for our own safety!
- True Companions: "You've never understood us, your kind - we've been fighting with each other our whole lives, but nobody plays us off each other, and nobody ever, ever gets between us!"
- Try Not to Die: A twisted version, brought about by sheer desperation:
"The president has instructed me to pass along an order to you: You are not to get shot down."
"Uh, we'll do our best, sir."
"I don't think you understand me correctly. You are not to get shot down under any circumstances. Whatever happens up there, you were not shot at. Mechanical failures are fine, crashing into mountains, fine. But you and your men are not to be shot at, fired at, launched upon.... If you are fired upon, the President will be forced to attack the sites that fired on you. He doesn't want to have to do that. It's very important that he doesn't, or things could get very badly out of control.
- War Hawk: Many of the Joint Chiefs, particularly Gen. Curtis LeMay, keep advocating Kennedy invade Cuba to forcibly remove the missiles installed there, despite almost certain Soviet retaliation against a US ally somewhere.
- We Are Not Going Through That Again: A historical version with John F. Kennedy citing The Guns of August's account of how the blunders of that time led to World War One and noting that there is no way he was going to repeat that story and set off World War III. On the opposing side the Joint Chiefs make repeated references to the Munich agreement that signed away Czechoslovakia to the Nazis in 1938, the infamous source of the Peace in Our Time misquote.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Joint Chiefs of Staff want to protect the United States just as much as Kennedy, but they believe it can only be achieved through war against Cuba and if necessary the Soviet Union, despite the danger that this may result in a nuclear exchange. They try to manipulate Kennedy into a situation where their men will be forced to start shooting. Discussed between Kennedy and Kenny, the latter of whom acknowledges that the Generals' intentions are understandable even if their behavior is extreme, and it may in fact end up having been the right call to make.
- White and Grey Morality: Kenny, Bobby and JFK are the most traditional heroes, being quite inspiring if pragmatic figures. The Soviets don't want a war to start either, but like the Americans find themselves drawn into a series of escalations that is bigger than they are. The greys are the military hardliners, but even they are Well Intentioned Extremists who believe they're doing the right thing.
- With Due Respect: The Admiral gets into a heated argument over the "shots" he ordered fired at the Soviet ships with his civilian superior, Defense Secretary McNamara. The Admiral prefaces his argument with this, while clearly being condescending to him.
- With Friends Like These...: basically the theme of the whole film.
- Zero-Approval Gambit:
- Discussed. Most of Ex-Comm, including Kenny, was opposed to trading away the US missiles in Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Both Kennedys, though, wanted to do it as the deadline to the beginning of military action against Cuba drew closer. Kenny, in a rather heated exchange with Bobby, argues it would just lead to the Soviets forcing trade after trade until they demand something untradable like Berlin, by which point war would break out anyway.
Kenny: Not to mention this administration would be politically dead.
Bobby: I don't care if this administration ends up in the freaking toilet! We don't do a deal tonight, there won't be an administration.
- Adlai Stevenson was the only member of Ex-Comm that continually brought up the idea of a diplomatic solution before the decision to blockade Cuba was set, even though it makes him seem like a pushover weakling. He lampshaded it himself when he brought up the idea to trade Guantanamo Bay and the US missiles in Turkey in exchange, saying that someone should be the coward and it may as well be him.
Stevenson: Have you ever seen someone slit his own throat like I did?