In Thirteen Days, the Cuban Missile Crisis is experienced through Presidential aide Kenny O'Donnell, played by Kevin Costner as a man who is a witness to power and peril in an unraveling crisis in the White House.
The filmmakers were committed to maintaining an approach to the story that was both accurate and engaging to audiences while remaining faithful to the historical research. Some of the dialogue in the film is actually lifted verbatim from White House tapes.
Producer Armyan Bernstein explains: "We always came back to the idea of watching this incredible period in time through the heart and soul of an Everyman. Kenny is an associate of the Kennedys who sees and reacts to the unfolding crisis the way any person in his shoes might, but who we could also use to voice differing points of view and add balance to the film about the Kennedy's."
"Through Kenny ODonnells eyes, the story is not so much about political policy as it is about the bravery, ingenuity and humanity he witnessed during these Thirteen Days. That's what makes the story both exciting and touching."
The real-life Kenny O'Donnell has been described as the quintessential Kennedy insider. He was a member of the fabled "Irish Mafia," and was one of the few men who took his orders directly from the President. O'Donnell was Bobby Kennedy's classmate and football teammate at Harvard, and went on to work in John F. Kennedy's Senate and Presidential campaigns. Ultimately, he served in the White House as one of JFK's Special Assistants and Appointments Secretary -- the President's gatekeeper and one of his most trusted aides. In fact, his office in the White House was one of two that had direct access into the Oval Office.
In his book With Kennedy, JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger wrote: "From my viewpoint, O'Donnell had the greatest responsibility, influence and accessibility to the President." Reporter Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post once wrote: "O'Donnell was the perfect aide — tight-lipped, shrewd, tough, totally loyal and never hesitant to say exactly what he thought."
A profile of O'Donnell in The Wall Street Journal in April 1963 spoke of O'Donnell's
"tough, political approach and immense power" and noted that "a ranking New
Frontiersman calls him 'the most important man in the White House other than the
When the Cuban Missile Crisis led to a fierce standoff, Kennedy convened a top-secret strategy session, inviting his top Cabinet advisors, CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff officials, his brother Bobby -- and a handful of trusted aides, including O'Donnell.
Kevin Costner was drawn to the idea of playing someone who participated so actively, yet quite anonymously, in the vital shadows of history. "There are a lot of men and women like Kenny O'Donnell who people will never know," comments Costner. "He
was really just being a friend and advisor to John F. Kennedy during a time of tremendous crisis but he was a witness to history."
In reading the script, Costner was struck by how the Cuban Missile Crisis, seemingly such a large and overwhelmingly complex historical moment, was actually made up of a series of intense human interactions. "This was such an awesome event in the history of humanity," says Costner, "but it was really just about what a few men were saying to each other. It was all in the weight of their words — and one misstep could have changed everything. I thought that was fascinating."
Costner was also compelled by the relationship that O'Donnell had with both JFK and RFK, something he wanted to bring out in his performance. "For me what was really at issue was how these
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