|To be blunt, I was not really looking forward to having to sit through Thirteen Days. I mean, I lived through it
(although I have only the vaguest of recollections), studied it in high school and college history, and also
watched the above-average 1974 television docudrama The Missiles of October. So, what more could
there be to know about those events of recent occurrence? Well, as an ABC News special pointed out in
1992, there was more to know. Indeed, in the seven or so years since the 30th anniversary of the events,
more information has come to light as documents were declassified. Writer David Self based his script in
part on the book "The Kennedy Tapes - Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis" by Ernest
R May and Philip D Zelikow as well as on his own research. The result is a gripping and
enthralling look at the behind-the-scenes machinations that occurred as events were threatening
to erupt into World War III.
As with almost any motion picture based on historical events, the outcome is generally known.
The success (or failure) of the film lies in the way the story unfolds, and in the case of
Thirteen Days, it is a winner. In mid-October 1962, US reconnaissance planes uncovered
evidence of a military installation of Soviet-made, nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba. President
John F Kennedy (well-captured by Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood) is informed and he turns to
two of his most trusted advisors, his brother Bobby (Steven Culp), who is also the US Attorney
General, and his Appointment Secretary Kenneth O'Donnell (Kevin Costner). The trio form the
core of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. As THIRTEEN DAYS
makes clear, President Kennedy faced numerous obstacles in attempting to mete out a peaceful
solution to the crisis. The Joint Chiefs of Staff clearly lusted for war and want to rectify the
failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The press began to smell a story and reporters
attempt to ferret out the truth. Diplomatic channels appeared not to be working. Six days into the
situation, Kennedy addressed the nation on television, informing the public of the situation and
outlining point by point his plan of action, ending with the assurance that "[o]ur goal is not the
victory of might, but the vindication of right -- not peace at the expense of freedom, but both
peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world."
As directed with skill by Roger Donaldson, Thirteen Days plays like a fictional thriller but
is made all the more engrossing because it really happened. While some have carped at the
dramatic license taken by Self in expanding O'Donnell's role, that was clearly done to 1) allow
the audience to have a surrogate and 2) give producer-star Kevin Costner a leading role. Costner
manages to acquit himself quite well, although his "Bah-ston" accent is at times overdone. (After
this and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, it's clear he shouldn't adopt any vocal tricks.)
O'Donnell is another in the line of stalwart heroes Costner has excelled at in the past -- roles like
Eliot Ness in The Untouchables or Wyatt Earp. He is part pit bull, part watch
dog, but he is also human as evidenced by the scenes with his family (including a fine Lucinda
Jenney as his wife).
The large supporting cast includes such veterans as stage veterans as Tony Award winners Len
Cariou (as Dean Acheson) and Frank Wood (as McGeorge Bundy) as well as terrific character
actors like Kevin Conway (quite effective as General Curtis Lemay), Bill Smitrovich (as General
Maxwell Taylor), Dylan Baker (as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara), Peter White (as
CIA director John McCone) and Michael Fairman (as UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson). It's
also worth noting that a real member of the Kennedy family -- Christopher Lawford -- is
well-cast as a pilot. But the real "stars" are Steven Culp and Bruce Greenwood as the Kennedy
brothers. Culp, who essayed Robert Kennedy in the dreadful HBO movie Norma Jean and
Marilyn, clearly did his homework, capturing the physical attributes of the man (the crossed
arms, the slight stoop of the head) but he also projects the brash charisma as well. Greenwood is
even better, allowing momentary glimpses of the human being (like back pain) while still
managing to suggest the man's heroism.
THIRTEEN DAYS packs a lot into its two-hour-twenty-five minute running time yet it never
drags or bogs down in minutiae. In fact, there were some aspects of the story that cried out for
further development. But that's the hallmark of a good historical drama; it presents you with
enough information and leaves you wanting to do more research on your own. However it may
have bent the facts a bit, THIRTEEN DAYS remains one of the most literate and well-crafted
political-themed dramas in recent memory.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 145 mins.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.