Dancing With Missiles

  In my book, The Body, I described a particularly bad stretch of videos I once rented, including Dances With Wolves, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and JFK. By "bad," I was commenting on what they did with history -- how they distorted facts to make an ideological point. What I didn't notice at the time was that they had something else in common: all these films starred Kevin Costner. Well, Costner is back; he's committed another movie. It's called 13 Days, and it tells the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was the famous confrontation in 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union after it was discovered that Soviet missiles were being based in Cuba, just ninety miles from American soil. In the film, Costner plays Kenny O'Donnell, President John Kennedy's appointment secretary. The story of how Kennedy avoided war and found a face-saving resolution to the crisis is told through O'Donnell's eyes. Now, the real O'Donnell wasn't a major player in the crisis. But this isn't the distortion of history I'm referring to. The distortion I have in mind is the film's explanation for the crisis. Viewers who know nothing about the Missile Crisis will walk out of the theaters believing it was the fault of the American military. Throughout the film, military leaders are depicted as trying to manipulate, cajole, and bully the young president into war. In case we miss the point, the most prominent hawk in the film is General Curtis LeMay. In 1968, as George Wallace's running mate, LeMay became infamous for suggesting that we "bomb Hanoi back into the Stone Age." Now while it's true that LeMay and others advocated the use of force, the way they're depicted in 13 Days is a deliberate distortion. An even bigger distortion is the way communist leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro are depicted. Castro is never even mentioned, and viewers are never told why Khrushchev ordered the missiles put there in the first place. In other words, the two men most responsible for the crisis are completely absolved by Kostner's movie -- leaving us with only American hawks and Cold Warriors to blame. Well, it's true that no one should go to the movies if it's a history lesson he's after. As director John Sayles put it, "responsibility" and "Hollywood" are two words that shouldn't be used in the same sentence. But it's also true that even our best students know less and less history today. A test, administered last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni to seniors at some of America's best universities, found that most of them didn't know who won the battle of Yorktown. Their ignorance of the rest of history was even worse. Thus, many, if not most, of the people seeing 13 Days will have no basis to know what on the screen is fact and what is pure invention. What they know about the Cuban Missile Crisis, like what they know about westward expansion, or the Kennedy assassination, for that matter, will be what they see in the movies. And, as I seem to learn every time I watch a film, whatever the tens of millions of dollars that studios spend on movies buys for them, it does not include respect for the truth. For further reading: "History 101: Snoop Doggy Roosevelt." New York Times, 2 July 2000.


Chuck Colson


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