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Movie Mom

For once the tag line has it just right: “You’ll never know how close we came.”

It may seem like a movie script, but it really happened. American planes took photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba, a “massively destabilizing move.” If they had been armed, they could have wiped out most of the mainland US population in five minutes. President John F. Kennedy had written a book while he was in college about the failure of England to respond to German aggression when it still might have been possible to prevent World War II. But he had also made his own mistake — a bad one — by responding too aggressively at the Bay of Pigs. Advisors like Dean Acheson and the military urged him to bomb the sites. But Adlai Stevenson says, “One of us in the room should be a coward,” and he asks the President to come up with a diplomatic solution. Kennedy knows better than to fight the last war, but he is not sure how to fight the next one.

There is no time spent on introductions or exposition, giving the story a sense of immediacy and urgency. It will leave audiences reminding themselves that we are still here, so it must have turned out all right. The President and his advisors argue about what to do (“Bombing them sure would feel good!”), interrupted by “just as usual” events to avoid letting the press or the Soviets suspect that anything was going on. When President Kennedy tells Chicago Mayor Daley that he “wouldn’t miss this event for the world,” we appreciate the literal meaning of his words.

Producer Kevin Costner plays a real person, Kennedy staffer Kenny O’Donnell, but the character combines the roles and actions of several people and essentially exists to help tell the story as efficiently as possible. Most of the time, he blends in with a large, capable cast of character actors (though he seems to make himself too important in a pep talk scene and at the end there is a sort of “Three Musketeers” shot that seems inappropriate).

Parents should know that the movie features brief strong language. Most of the movie is very tense, and a character is killed.

This is an outstanding movie, with much for families to talk about. Parents and grandparents should tell children any memories they may have of the Cuban missile crisis. They should talk about what we do when we have hard choices to make — President Kennedy and his brother, his closest advisor, listen to advice from experts, but, as the President says, “There is something immoral about abandoning your own judgment.” At the end of the day, he realizes that “there’s no wise old men; there’s just us.” Why does Kenny O’Donnell say that the only word in politics is “loyalty?” Why did the Soviets send a message through a reporter instead of using diplomatic channels? Why was it important for Adlai Stevenson to make a strong statement at the UN? Why did they ignore the second letter from Kruschev? How did that change things? What must someone do in order to direct soldiers to take actions that may get them killed? Who told the truth and who lied? Why?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Air Force One” and some of the books and documentaries about President Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy. DVD note: This first release from Infinifilm demonstrates shows us why the DVD technology was developed. It is packed with extras that are genuinely thrilling, from commentary by the real-life participants to a copy of the shooting script. Families with DVD players should consider this treasure for their permanent collection.

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