Thirteen Days (2000)

2000, New Line. Directed by Roger Donaldson. Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?A-
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +1
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-II

Content advisory: Frequent profanity; threat of nuclear war.

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Thirteen days (DVD)

By Steven D. Greydanus

Full disclosure: I walked into Thirteen Days with only the haziest of understandings of the Cuban missile crisis. With me, on the other hand, was my father, who remembers it well and (being a bit of a political animal) has his own thoughts on the whole affair. It says something about Thirteen Days that each of us was completely engrossed by this smart, intriguing, at times riveting political thriller that brings compellingly to life the tension and uncertainty of a terrible moment in world history, along the way offering a nuanced, persuasive behind-the-scenes look at the Kennedy White House — a look that is equally devoid both of worshipful "Camelot" nonsense and of scurrilous scandal-mongering.

Don’t be put off by Kevin Costner or the threat of yet another unconvincing accent. And don’t be put off by the forty-year-old subject matter. This is neither a dry history lesson nor a dumbed-down "docu-drama." Rather, like another well-made 1960s-era historical thriller with a "thirteen" title — Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 — this film tells a taut, matter-of-fact tale of competent, frightened men desperately trying to think their way out of a deadly crisis involving a fearful new rocket-driven technology.

The great difference, of course, between Apollo 13 and Thirteen Days is that in Apollo 13 only three lives are at stake, not millions. Also, the threats faced by the Apollo astronauts had to do with concrete realities: the laws of physics, oxygen supply limits, mechanical malfunctions, and so forth. The factors in Thirteen Days are much more incalculable: the unguessable reactions of Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev; the enigmatic political vicissitudes of the USSR.

Thirteen Days also resembles Apollo 13 in the expert way it brings audience members up to speed on the complexity of the crisis without becoming condescending or having characters pointedly "explaining" things to one another. The not-yet-operational missiles on Cuban soil, the inexorably ticking clock as they move toward operability… the potential U.S. air strikes that could eliminate most, but not necessarily all, of the threat… the risk of a retaliatory Soviet strike to Berlin, and the spiraling consequences that could result… the U.S. missiles in Turkey, and the political impossibility of a quid pro quo agreement… Thirteen Days makes it all not merely comprehensible, but gripping.

At the movie’s center are evocative performances from Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy and Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy. Yes, Kevin Costner is the big-name star; and the story is told from the point of view of his character, a White House insider named Kenny O’Donnell who was Bobby’s college roommate and JFK’s campaign manager. But it’s Greenwood’s JFK and Culp’s RFK that drive this film, along with a memorable (though uncredited) assist from Michael Fairman as Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who took a surprisingly hard-nosed line with his diffident Soviet counterpart, famously declaring that he could wait for clarification on the missile issue "till hell freezes over."

Greenwood’s Jack Kennedy is a forceful but fallible and human-scaled hero, a man who doesn’t have all the answers, and knows that no one else really does either. He’s capable of showing weakness, and he can make mistakes, but in the end he’s determined that the final word will be his, and he will trust his own instincts.

Greenwood spent weeks studying film and audiotape of JFK in an effort to capture the style and spirit of the man, and his masterful performance transcends mere impersonation. And Steven Culp is his equal as Bobby, the intense, behind-the-scenes planner and plotter working furiously for a back-door solution. There are only a couple of scenes with Stephanie Romanov as Jackie, but her presence in the periphery enhances the air of authenticity. Thirteen Days does a good job of getting the "period" feel right too, from clothing and haircuts to cars and telephones.

Like Greenwood, screenwriter David Self did his homework for the project, poring over written and taped records to ensure the basic accuracy of the main outlines of the story. This is no work of wild Oliver Stone invention, although some dramatic license has been taken. For example, the film depicts JFK hampered by mistrustful Pentagon brass who grumble ominously about "those Kennedys" and may escalate the situation despite the President’s efforts. In fact, in order to deprive belligerent generals of a pretext for forcing airstrikes, Costner’s character Kenny O’Donnell badgers spyplane pilots into denying in their reports to the Pentagon that they were ever fired upon.

In a film in which Krushchev appears in name only, a hawkish U.S. military is a handy onscreen antagonist, and helps keep tension levels high. There may, or may not, be anything to this historically; but in any case it seems to be consistent with the mood of the actual events, and helps convey how alone Kennedy must have felt in a situation in which, as Kenny O’Donnell puts it, "there are no wise old men — hell, there’s only us."

As for O’Donnell himself… once you get past the grating accent, Kevin Costner delivers an effective, restrained performance, with no trace of the solemn self-importance of typical Costner vehicles (The Postman, Waterworld, Dances with Wolves). The role of the historical Kenny O’Donnell in the story may have been beefed up for his sake, but for the most part Costner’s O’Donnell is a useful "fly on the wall," an ordinary man whose presence provides the audience with emotional access to the unfolding events without having to immediately identify ourselves with the likes of Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

To be sure, sometimes O’Donnell becomes too crucial to the flow of events, telling Jack and Bobby what has to be done, warning them of hidden dangers, giving them pep talks when they most need it — all the while protesting that he’s not smart or great like they are. If one may suspect this had something to do with Costner’s ego, at least he gave an egoless performance, likable and low-key.

A minor thread of religious faith runs through the film, predominantly Catholic, and seen in a positive light. In one striking scene, after the Soviet missiles have become public knowledge, O’Donnell first contemplates and then joins a long line of people waiting to get into a Catholic church where a sign promises "confession 24 hours a day." The O’Donnell family goes to Mass. (Minor inauthenticity: the O’Donnell family is depicted getting ready for Mass on Sunday morning — eating breakfast. Not in 1962, they weren’t.) And one of O’Donnell’s phone conversations with a spyplane pilot turns to the pilot’s religious faith.

Thirteen Days is about how a few imperfect men more or less saved the world. Whatever else Kennedy and these other men may or may not have done, this was perhaps their finest hour, and the world owes them a debt of gratitude. If the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction seems remote and antiquated today, it is at least partly because of the events dramatized in this film. Thirteen Days is a fitting dramatic tribute to the deadly brinksmanship that pulled us back from the edge during the most volatile two weeks of the Cold War.

Tags: Drama, Thriller

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