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'Clouds Over Cuba' Revisits the Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 Years After

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In 1962, the United States was on the brink of an all-out nuclear war. Now, 50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library revisits that fateful time, with an interactive documentary film that shows us just how close we came to a major global conflict.

"Clouds Over Cuba," created by The Martin Agency and directed by Erich Joiner and Ben Tricklebank at Tool, is a two-hour project that includes a documentary film and accessible expert commentaries from historian Sheldon M. Stern, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's son, Sergei, professor Timothy McKeown and author Eric G. Swedin.

While you watch the documentary, dozens of archival photos, videos, documents and audio recordings -- like the recently declassified tapes from the ExComm meetings between Kennedy and his advisory committee -- are added to a "digital dossier," which can be accessed online, or via your smartphone at any time. There's also a calendar that syncs with your iCal or Google Calendar so viewers can experience the 13 days leading to the crisis "live," by attending key meetings, receiving letters and notes.

Toward the end, there's a short film that takes place in an alternate 2012 -- one where the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a full scale nuclear war -- which tells the story of four characters who remember the horrors of that time in their own ways. The film feels deceptively real--and seems as much a documentary as the rest of the site, but it was actually scripted and features actors.

Education Over Promotion
"Our motto is to educate the public about JFK's legacy," said Joe Alexander, executive creative director at The Martin Agency. "We realized a series of print ads wouldn't do justice to this very complicated story, so we brought in this documentary, plus the teaching tool that is the 'what-if' scenario."

The title itself, like the campaign, is multi-layered. The "Clouds" refers of course, to the clouds that covered Cuba during that time, which made U.S. reconnaissance missions extremely difficult, but also to the mushroom clouds that signal a nuclear bomb. As Mr. Alexander notes, the title was also chosen to note the "foggy memory" that many people now have about the crisis.

Brian Williams, who co-led creative on the project, said that for someone like him, who didn't live through the crisis, people don't know how close we really came. "We want to debunk the misconceptions, that Kennedy's advisors were the ones to collectively lead us away from the brink of war, and show people just how wrong it could have gone," he said. "Let's see the devastation."

The Martin Agency had previously worked with Ben Tricklebank at Domani Studios on JFK Library's multi-awarded "We Choose the Moon," which recreated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing. Since then, Mr. Tricklebank had moved to production company Tool. "We followed him around," said Mr. Williams. "And as the project became more film-based, it was great to have [Tool's] resources."

The team said that both projects boast the same depth of painstaking research, and the challenges in "Moon" are present in "Clouds" as well. "We write the story down, figure out what to include and condense into something innovative," said Mr. Tricklebank.

Fiction, Sometimes Harder than Fact
"The big difference is the alternate version of events," he added. Although one might expect the team to be able to take some creative liberties here, this portion was meticulously researched, with factors like weather, weapons used and strategies utilized being taken into account for what that alternate 2012 would look like. That was crucial to ensuring "What-if" portion seemed plausible, he said. Much of the basis for the alternate film was Mr. Swedin's book, "When Angels Wept," which deals with what could have happened if the crisis had not been averted.

Mr. Tricklebank said that the linearity of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- things pretty much unfolded in a straightforward way over those 13 days -- gave the project a clear structure. Then, it was a matter of digging deeper and creating branches of content at key points throughout the narrative that people could access if they wanted to. "You can watch this, get a top-level view, and then, if you're interesting, dig into the 200-plus document dossier," said Mr. Tricklebank.

While the majority of the historical documents have been declassified, until this project, none of them had been pulled together. The teams scoured national archives, the JFK Library, and obtained licenses for the speeches from media organizations. The information that wasn't out there was uncovered with expert interviews.

Khrushchev's Unusual Fee
One of the more interesting things about the campaign is its inclusion of Nikita Khruschev's son, Sergei, who was 27 years old at the time of the crisis. "He said he would do the interview for $1,000, a bottle of vodka and a Russian prositute," joked Tool's Erich Joiner. In reality, all he required was the dough, which was a small price to pay for adding a fresh viewpoint to the story. Often, said Mr. Tricklebank, history books omit the Soviet perspective. "People think Nikita was removed from power because of the crisis, and that isn't necessarily true," said Mr. Tricklebank. "It's nice to hear it from him."

Behind the scenes of the 'what-if' film shoot
Behind the scenes of the 'what-if' film shoot

It's a dream project -- one that creatives at The Martin Agency take seriously. "We love the fact that it's firmly grounded into history," said Mr. Williams. They're already looking into a campaign for next year, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death.

"History is a great subject matter," said Mr. Alexander. "It's a different mindset than selling a product."

The full documentary can be accessed at CloudsOverCuba.com.


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