2001, PG-13, 145 min. Directed by Roger Donaldson. Starring Ed Lauter, Bill Smitrovich, Len Cariou, Frank Wood, Henry Strozier, Dylan Baker, Steven Culp, Bruce Greenwood, Kevin Costner.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 12, 2001
As a critic who spent the better part of this past year grousing about the dearth of “intelligent” storylines in 2000, it's heartening to see a film like Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days, which covers the 1962 Cuban missile crisis from, if not a strictly intellectual angle, then at the very least one which forsakes toilet humor and winking asides to Jack Kennedy's revolving-door extramarital policies. (This may seem odd coming from a reviewer who spent Christmas Eve watching Sage Stallone's DVD re-release of Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox, but honestly, folks, you try finding It's a Wonderful Life at the 11th hour.) Doubtless there will be those among the film's target boomer audience that will feel Donaldson's film glosses over significant portions of those edgy October days, but for the majority of current filmgoers -- and by that I mean the not-yet-born-at-that-time set, myself included -- this particular history lesson seems a finely wrought thing, full of escalating tensions and, surprisingly, without a sense of the tutorial. We're not really here to learn, but if we do, all the better. Thirteen Days revolves entirely around the events taking place in the White House between President Kennedy (Greenwood); his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Culp); and, both the President and the audience's right-hand-man, Kenny O'Donnell (Costner), a former Harvard buddy of Bobby's, and now the President's senior political advisor. The Russians stay in Russia -- one of the first images in the film is of the O'Donnell kitchen, crowded with wife, kids, and, tellingly, two bulky telephones, one black and one alarmingly crimson. It's assumed that Kruschev and his apparatchiks have their own matching sets of phones at the Kremlin, but we never get to see them in action. When U.S. spy planes unearth the fact that the Soviets have placed medium-range surface-to-ground missiles in Cuba, the Kennedy administration is forced to act quickly to get them out. Washington itself is in peril, and the choices open to the fledgling Pres are less than reassuring. On the one side, hawkish Generals Taylor and Carter (Smitrovich and Lauter) push for bombings and invasion, while on the other Adlai Stevenson (an uncredited Michael Fairman) and brother Bobby work toward a peaceful resolution. As historical fact, Bobby Kennedy's plan for a blockade of Cuban waters wins out, though not without problems for both hawks and doves. All of this is, of course, a matter of record. You may wonder, as I did, just how much suspense can be generated from a story whose outcome is so firmly fixed in the collective unconscious of our nation, but Donaldson, working from a script by Philip D. Zelikow (itself adapted from Ernest R. May's nonfiction book, which provides the script with voluminous, straight-from-the-transcript details), continually ratchets up the sweaty-palm level time and again. The script, and Donaldson's handling of it, is the genuine article. Not so Costner's outrageous Boston-baked-beans accent, which fluctuates from admirably restrained to outright silly (à la “Why'd ya pahk the cah so fah from the bah? Now we gahtta waaahk!”) whenever the actor feels he may be upstaged by the events surrounding him. It's Greenwood, though, as the beleaguered JFK, who steals the picture with a nuanced, subtle performance. His Jack Kennedy is a man with neither options nor time, facing the gravest peril, and he plays what must have been a tremendously difficult role with panache and aplomb. Thirteen Days is unlikely to convert cineplex mallrats to the cause of “adult” filmmaking, sure, but it's a suspenseful breath of fresh air following on the heels of one of the dumbest Hollywood summers in recent memory.