As someone who has devoured practically everything he could find about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I ought to be the target audience for the 50-year anniversary special “Cuban Missile Crisis — Three Men Go to War,” which will air Oct. 23 on PBS.
But this one-hour documentary struck me as strangely flat, despite some obvious coups, like securing an interview with the son of then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Sergei, as well as various participants in those events and American, Cuban and Russian historians.
Oddly, this doc devoted squarely to the Missiles of October and the standoff over nuclear weapons in Cuba doesn’t bring the period to life as vividly as HBO’s “Ethel,” which premiered Oct. 18, and allocated only a small portion of its time to the exchange. (My earlier thoughts on that documentary can be found here.)
The project does benefit from access to audiotapes of conversations involving President Kennedy, with Gen. Curtis LeMay — who later became George Wallace’s running mate on a third-party presidential ticket — capturing how close the world came to a nuclear exchange by saying in regard to Cuba, “I’ll fry it.”
As several of the interview subjects make clear, Khrushchev “sees Kennedy as a pushover,” as Peter Kornbluh — director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project — succinctly puts it.
Still, even with the material unearthed thanks to newly declassified documents from all three countries, “Cuban Missile Crisis” feels mostly like a rehash, and unnecessarily dresses itself up with too-familiar images of mushroom clouds.
For those old enough to remember those days — or even their baby boomer kids, who simply recall participating in “duck and cover” drills at school — the specter of nuclear annihilation doubtless remains deeply ingrained in the psyche. They deserve a great special chronicling an incident of such enormous historical importance.
“Cuban Missile Crisis” isn’t bad, but it also isn’t that.