Thursday, December 18, 2014

On the Brink of Nuclear War

I didn't see "The Missiles of October," the made–for–TV movie about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when it was first broadcast on ABC 40 years ago today.

I saw it years later when my American history teacher in high school showed it to my class on video tape. It was so long — more than two hours — that my memory is that she had to show it over three consecutive days.

It was also one of those historical dramatizations that made me wonder why it took so long for the project to become a reality. Yet, for a long time, it was the only dramatization (that I know of) of arguably the most significant event of the second half of the 20th century.

Now, having been a teacher myself, one of my first thoughts when I remember my teacher showing us that movie is that it was a great way to fill the class time without having to do too much prep work. I guess I really kind of felt that way at the time; as I have gotten older, and my perspective has changed, I see things differently. Few people really see how hard teachers work to prepare for classes, even ones in which a movie will fill the time. As a student, I didn't realize that — but, as the son and grandson of teachers, I should have known better.

At the time, though, I didn't dwell on that too much. I was absolutely mesmerized by the story, and I really think that is what my teacher was shooting for with as many of us as possible. Young people's fascination with video is not a new phenomenon. We were just as fascinated, and I like to think my classmates learned something from watching the movie. Many of them just weren't good at absorbing what they read. I've always felt bad for people like that. I have loved to read ever since I learned how.

I was already familiar with the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I had read a lot of contemporary history by the time I got to high school, and I had seen film clips of President Kennedy from that time. I knew what he sounded like. In fact, I knew what many of the Americans in the story sounded like, and I figured I could spot a false note without too much trouble. I have now seen "The Missiles of October" several times, and I have yet to spot a false note.

And if I could do it, people who could remember that time certainly could do it, too. This movie appeared on TV about 12 years after the crisis — so anyone who was at least 20 on this night in 1974 would have some kind of memory of it. Obviously, the older one was, the greater the chance that person could remember a lot more than a 20–year–old. And, of course, some kids are more mature than other kids so it is quite possible that people who were in high school in 1974 could remember things about the crisis.

That is the risk, I suppose, in trying to dramatize an actual event with which so many people are familiar. I guess it is comparable to the post–9/11 syndrome. Eventually, I imagine, there will be many movies made about that day — after it has faded from memory — but, by and large, most filmmakers have avoided the subject, presumably because their audiences would have vivid memories of the attacks and the public statements by prominent people like George W. Bush.

That may have been the reason why so few movies have been made about contemporary events; even so, it took another quarter–century or so for the next dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis to be made — and I felt 2000's "Thirteen Days" was inferior to "The Missiles of October."

I guess logic says contemporary events really should be the easiest to dramatize because of the availability of film of the actual events. All you gotta do is study the film, right? But that makes the assignment even more challenging — because people who remember events tend to be very critical of re–creations of those events, very demanding. And they can be very unforgiving of what they perceive as missteps.

So I have to applaud the courage of actors and directors who accept such a challenge. Seen in that light, Daniel Day–Lewis' Oscar–winning portrayal of Abraham Lincoln isn't quite as remarkable as most of us first thought, is it? After all, he didn't have to be compared to film clips of Lincoln delivering a speech — only portraits and a few primitive photographs.

Nor did he have to live up to 150–year–old memories. Lincoln's contemporaries are long gone.

But William Devane had to be compared to not merely generic John F. Kennedy footage but the actual footage of his public statements during the crisis — and the memories of those who lived through the crisis.

(Just think what a challenge it will be someday when an actor faces the assignment of playing Barack Obama in a movie about the first black president.)

I have seen the footage of President Kennedy speaking to the nation during the crisis, an event that was duplicated in "The Missiles of October." Devane delivered a flawless version of Kennedy's New England accent and even captured Kennedy's mannerisms. Devane has always looked enough like a Kennedy to have had his own branch on the family tree, but he didn't just look the part. He was Kennedy.

I'm not as familiar with voices of many of those who participated in the real–life drama. I know what most of them looked like, and the actors playing them certainly looked the part. I can only assume that they sounded authentic as well.

I am old enough to remember Bobby Kennedy, and I can say that Martin Sheen did a superb job. He had Bobby's unique accent down. It was so good he probably could have pulled off posing as Bobby on the phone.

I had seen Martin Sheen in other movies by the time I saw "The Missiles of October" so I never associated him with that particular movie. But I did have — and still do have — a strong mental connection between the movie and Devane's portrayal of JFK.

(Of course, part of that may be his portrayal of a Teddy Kennedy–like character on a short–lived primetime soap opera in the mid–'90s.)

I don't remember seeing him in anything before I saw "The Missiles of October." I've seen him in many things since — including episodes of TV's The West Wing in which he and Sheen had a peculiar kind of role reversal, with Sheen playing the president and Devane playing a Cabinet member.

Nothing was embellished in "The Missiles of October." The dialogue (and the movie was almost entirely dialogue) came from historical sources. The audience was reminded of that from the beginning.

There were no splashy special effects, no explosions (except for grainy, black–and–white archival footage of nuclear tests). Just a riveting story.

It probably wasn't exciting enough for modern audiences, but my high school history class got swept up in the story. Oh, sure, there were a few immature giggles in the classroom early on whenever someone on screen uttered the word damn — which happened from time to time and understandably so, given the circumstances — but once the students got over that juvenile response, they got into the story.

It's still hard to believe we came so close to nuclear war. Harder still to believe we actually managed to avoid it.

And that, I think, is the mark of how good "The Missiles of October" was. Even though I knew how the story ended, I was still on the edge of my seat, wondering how things would turn out.