Narrative and the Problem of Hero-Worshipping

I recently watched The Missiles of October, a fictionalized docudrama that I've seen several times, and Thirteen Days, which I have now seen twice. Both tell the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, mostly from the point of view of the Kennedy Administration.

Whatever one thinks of the Kennedys, and who doesn't, The Missiles of October is far better in terms of writing than Thirteen Days. This is disappointing since Thirteen Days makes interesting choices regarding point of view; however, it largely undermines itself by its hero-worshipping attitudes.

The Kennedys are the main protagonists of The Missiles of October. William Devane plays Jack while Martin Sheen plays Bobby. William Devane specifically creates a powerhouse role--the tough, stern, no-nonsense president who plays fair, looks at all the options, and makes the tough calls. I can't say whether that's what really happened. I can say that Devane sells the part.

The main protagonist of Thirteen Days is not the president but his special assistant Kenny O'Connell played by Kevin Costner. The movie is told almost entirely from his perspective, a fascinating idea and one that I am (generally speaking) quite partial to (I've always enjoyed Star Trek episodes that are told from a peon's perspective).

Unfortunately, although Costner sells his part as far as it goes, he presents O'Connell not as an objective outsider but as a worshipping member of a boy's club. The Kennedys are SOOOO cool and awesome and smart and, well, cool. He is SOOOO lucky to be part of their coterie. They are SOOOO amazing.

If this was done critically or, even, ironically, it would be sad yet interesting. Unfortunately, it is done with utter seriousness. As a viewer, I am supposed to believe--without question--that these guys (Jack and Bobby) were American saviors.

And maybe it would work--except the audience never sees what O'Connell supposedly sees! Since O'Connell is the hero of the movie, he has to do heroic things, which means he spends more time telling the Kennedy characters that they are awesome as well as shoring up their confidence than actually witnessing their awesomeness.

Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy
The problem is not the actors. Bruce Greenwood plays Jack and Steven Culp, one of my all-time favorite actors, plays Bobby. To be frank, Devane and Sheen are better, but still, the problem is in the script, not the performances. By the end of the movie, if I didn't know better, I'd think Kenny O'Connell single-handedly prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating into World War III.

I think Kevin Costner, who was one of Thirteen Days' producers, found himself in a bind. He wanted the movie to be about his character; he wanted the movie to be about the Kennedys. And he might have been able to pull off both--if hero-worshipping had been excised from the picture. A narrative that tries to tell you how great characters are rather than showing you how they grow and struggle often ends up staggering under the weight of adulation--or lack of evidence.


Joe said...

The problem with both shows, and many history books and documentaries, is that they severely gloss over the fact that the crisis ended when the US agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy. I believe that Khrushchev played Kennedy like a fiddle.

FreeLiverFree said...

I haven't seen The Missiles of October, but I've seen Thirteen Days and I agree with you.

The thing is the Kennedys have so romanticized that it can be sickening. My dad was a kid during the Kennedy administration and he could not stand it. Kennedy's assassination served to further romanticize him. He gained a kind of secular sainthood. Mind you, I happen to think we had a string of bad Presidents after him.

Still, people aren't objective about Kennedy.