Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Missiles of October

Source Material: Thirteen Days by Robert Kennedy and assorted historical documents

Director: Anthony Page

Teleplay by: Stanley R. Greenberg

Year: 1974

Cast Highlights:
William Devane: John F. Kennedy
Martin Sheen: Robert F. Kennedy
Ralph Bellamy: Adlai Stevenson
Stewart Moss: Kenny O'Donnell
James Olson: McGeorge Bundy
Dana Elcar: Robert McNamara
Michael Lerner: Pierre Salinger
Andrew Duggan: Gen. Maxwell Taylor
Larry Gates: Dean Rusk
Clifford David: Ted Sorensen
John Dehner: Dean Acheson
Keene Curtis: John McCone
Howard DeSilva: Nikita Khruschev

Having seen numerous portrayals of the Kennedy brothers, I've discovered a major pitfall that lies in wait for any actor daring to take on these iconic figures. The Kennedy boys were famous for their coy and charming verbal pauses. If not properly played, however, the Kennedys' "errrs" and "ahhhs" come off as a sign of retardation, rather than the playful affectations that they actually were. Unfortunately, The Missiles of October sometimes falls into this trap. William Devane's portrayal of Jack Kennedy has gained legendary status over the years, but it's got some serious problems. Devane doesn't look very much like Kennedy, and his imitation of the President's voice sometimes slips into bad mimicry. On the other hand, Martin Sheen's Bobby Kennedy looks good, but his voice tends to get a little shrill and pinched.

Sadly, few of the actors in The Missiles of October resemble the people that they are portraying (although James Olson makes for an eerily accurate McGeorge Bundy). That having been said, most of them turn in credible, effective performances, and a few are truly revelatory. For example, Ralph Bellamy, so outstanding as FDR, comes off as a surprisingly canny and confident Adlai Stevenson, which undermines the standard "weak dove" portrayal. Similarly, Michael Lerner portrays Pierre Salinger with power and presence, transforming what is usually a comically ineffective character into a powerful voice. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of many of the other actors: Dana Elcar phones in a truly generic portrayal of Robert MacNamara and most of the military officers come off as flat caricatures.

On the bright side, The Missiles of October offers a perspective that is sadly lacking in other renditions of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the major characters is Nikita Khruschev, and the film does a credible job of showing both the Soviet and the American sides of the crisis. While this dissipates a lot of the dramatic tension that usually propels this story, it has the benefit of offering a more complete understanding of the story.

Ultimately, The Missiles of October is very complete in its coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but its poor pacing, low production values, and turgid performances manage to leach most of the drama out of this most dramatic historical episode. The entire film is presented as a staged performance, and it seems to have all the life and energy of an elementary-school play. All in all, if I had to choose one movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I'd skip this one and watch Thirteen Days.

Physical resemblance: 4/10
Historical Accuracy: 10/10
Acting: 7/10
Production Values: 5/10
Cinematography: 2/10
Directing: 6/10

Overall: 5/10

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