review by Joe Barlow, 12 January
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,
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.
Ernest R. May
Philip D. Zelikow
PG-13 - Parents
Some material ma
be inappropriate for
children under 13