"If one of their ships resists the inspection, and we shoot out its rudder and board it. They shoot down one of our planes, in response. So we bomb their anti-aircraft sites - in response to that...they attack Berlin. So we invade Cuba.... and they fire their missiles... and we fire ours..."
Thirteen Days is a 2000 film about the Cuban Missile Crisis, shown primarily from the point of view of President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and his senior advisers, including Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner) 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.
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.
Bay of Pigs Invasion: The Joint Chiefs, and, to a lesser extent, Kennedy, are still smarting from the backlash of this, part of why they keep advocating immediate military action.
Cats Have Nine Lives: Alluded to by Adlai: "I'm an old political cat, Kenny, but I've got one life left." Doubles as a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming, due to his humble and graceful embrace of his ending political career (or at least as it seems to him and everyone at the time).
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)
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".
Fake American: Canadian Bruce Greenwood playing the president of the United States.
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.
Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Curtis LeMay seems awfully eager for shooting to start. 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.
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 critized 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.
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. However, it's quite difficult to hide the fact that your own military is conducting major troop movements that disrupt rail schedules, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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. 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) and 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.) It also applies to smaller actors - why Kennedy had to show for Chicago (canceling would have raised red flags, especially in Moscow), why the New York Times was going to blow the lid off on the missiles (they witheld on the Bay of Pigs and got raked over the coals for it), why Khrushchev sent that second letter formally asking for the withdrawl of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. 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.
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!
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.
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 missles 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 exhange 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.