Thirteen Days
review by Joe Barlow, 12 January 2001

What is it about John F. Kennedy that inspires epic films? Thirty-eight years after the untimely assassination of one of America's most beloved presidents, people still can't get enough of JFK and his story. In his death, Kennedy has become something of a symbol for the American spirit of freedom and indomitability, and his deeds -- like the man himself -- have become the stuff of legend. That probably says as much about America's dire lack of contemporary heroes as it does the continuing intrigue of the Kennedy mythology. But no man is perfect, and Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days paints Kennedy less as an archetypal American patriot than a frustrated, worried man struggling with the biggest problem of his (or indeed, of any man's) career: the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Donaldson and actor Kevin Costner are no strangers to political thrillers; the pair worked together on 1987's No Way Out, one of this reviewer's favorite suspense movies (in my review for The DVD Journal, I compared the film -- favorably -- to Hitchcock's best work). And Costner, of course, has already parlayed his Kennedy infatuation into one hugely successful work, Oliver Stone's thoughtful JFK. But the great strength of Thirteen Days is the way that the supremely intelligent screenplay keeps the action focused squarely on the human drama of the story, rather than the ghastly events unfolding around the world. This lends an intimate feel to the proceedings, which suits the film well.

Kenny OíDonnell (Costner) is a top political advisor to President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood). Although kept busy with his job, O'Donnell is a devoted family man with nothing more worrisome in his idyllic life than his son's less-than-glowing report card. Things soon change, however, when American reconnaissance detects large stockpiles of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. When Kennedy's demands for the immediate dismantling of the weapons fall on unresponsive Russian ears, Kennedy imposes a trade blockade around the island, an act which brings the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The performances here are consistently strong, though the film unfortunately proves, as did Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, that Kevin Costner canít do a convincing accent to save his life. Still, what he lacks in vocal diction, Costner more than makes up for in sheer screen presence. He's both friend and spiritual brother to John Kennedy and his little brother Bobby (a show-stealing performance by Steven Culp that has to be seen to be believed), and provides the strength and wisdom that the situation requires. Kenny, unlike most of the other characters in the story, recognizes the need to contain the situation as much as possible -- witness, for example, his request for American pilots not to report any enemy attacks to their supervisors. Kenny wisely recognizes that such reports would force Kennedy to respond in kind with violence. "Sparrows," explains O'Donnell. "That's all that hit your plane. Sparrows, not bullets."

Thirteen Days is a skillful piece of filmmaking that reveals Donaldson's desire to educate his audience as well as entertain. The movie introduces each new character with a subtitle explaining his or her title and function, thereby ensuring that viewers born long after the events depicted here will still be able to follow the story with ease. Historical weight is given to the proceedings via black and white insert shots. And as previously stated, extra power is given to the story's performances and drama by depicting our protagonists not as super heroes but as men worried about their actions and plagued with self-doubt, as anyone would be.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous chess game the United States has ever played, and Thirteen Days depicts every move with the respect and attention it deserves, often with haunting results. Itís a chilling indication of human nature, for instance, that while Kennedy celebrates the continuing peace between the two nations at the conclusion of the film, many of his advisors are already planning how to best use their new political clout to further their own careers. That says it all, really.


Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' interview.

Directed by:
Roger Donaldson

Starring:
Kevin Costner
Bruce Greenwood
Steven Culp
Dylan Baker
Henry Strozier
Frank Wood
Len Cariou
Janet Coleman

Written by:
Ernest R. May
Philip D. Zelikow

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned
Some material ma
be inappropriate for
children under 13

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