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Thirteen Days   A-

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Roger Donaldson
Writer: David Self
Cast: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker, Michael Fairman, Kevin Conway.

Review by Rob Vaux

The key to Thirteen Days, Roger Donaldson's gripping new account of the Cuban missile crisis, is creating tension out of an event to which everyone knows the outcome. History has already recorded the high-stakes showdown between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Krushchev... how do you recreate the stress and suspense of that scenario 38 years after the fact? Thirteen Days starts by having a good account of the facts and a strong sense of how to mine their inherent dramatic potential. It adds a superb cast and a director who knows better than to meddle with the material, then finishes with a terrific sense of efficient momentum.

The Cuban missile crisis began in October of 1962, when an American spy plane photographed Soviet nuclear weapons being set up in Cuba. The missiles had enough range to strike at most of the southern United States (including Washington) with very little warning time. Intelligence sources estimated about two weeks before they became operational, giving the Kennedy administration very little time to formulate a response. Several scenarios were debated, most involving some sort of military assault, before Kennedy decided to "quarantine" the island (essentially a blockade without the inflammatory title). The resulting confrontation with the Russians pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Thirteen Days presents an account of the crisis from beginning to end, as seen from the eyes of one of Kennedy's senior advisors, Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner). A fellow New Englander, O'Donnell has the respect and trust of both JFK (played here by Bruce Greenwood) and his younger brother Bobby (Steven Culp, sharp as a tack). Together, the three men must negotiate the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of resolving the crisis without starting a war. Not only do they have the Soviets to worry about, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff seem hell-bent on invading Cuba as revenge for the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy must play both sides with near-perfect delicacy while finding some acceptable exit from the rapidly escalating crisis.

The film thrives on its implicit understanding of the facts, and on its head-first plunge into all of the gritty details. Director Donaldson and screenwriter David Self pay close attention to the historical nuts and bolts, and although a certain glossing over is inevitable (O'Donnell, for example, feels very much like a composite character), they keep most of the details clear and sharp. Self used the Kennedy White House tapes as the source of his script, and the accuracy shows in every crackling minute. Even though we know the crisis will be resolved, Thirteen Days succeeds more than once in making us doubt the outcome. Scenario after scenario of seemingly unavoidable conflicts arise, as planes are shot at, Soviet rhetoric increases, and power blocs within the administration threaten to touch off a cataclysm. Each crisis seems certain -- certain -- to send the balloon up. The excitement comes from watching how the Kennedys work their way out of such impossible circumstances, finding new and original ways to outthink their opponents. Donaldson plays each new complication with the right combination of distance and intensity, allowing us to watch what unfolds without feeling manipulated.

The cast earns its share of credit, or more specifically, the two men playing the Kennedys do. While Costner delivers an adequate performance, a few embarrassing shortcomings keep him from really standing out (FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, man, stay away from accents). It's Greenwood and Culp who carry the film with their sharp portrayal of the Kennedy brothers. Culp's Bobby betrays a curious vulnerability, hidden beneath a fierce intellect and uncompromising morality, while Greenwood, recently saddled with a series of forgettable bad guy roles, brings a surprising willfulness to JFK. These aren't glamorous playboys or visionary idealists, but men struggling to prove their leadership amid unthinkable circumstances. Kennedy has the same fears and doubts here as the rest of the world, but refuses to lay down in the face of his enemies. Greenwood's focused performance, along with Culp's, strikes a very realistic chord and helps temper the film's occasional tendency towards hero worship.

Thirteen Days has the luxury of pre-existing drama -- it doesn't have to work hard to create the requisite emotional tension. The trick is allowing the suspense to come to the forefront without forcing it, and Donaldson & Co. are more than up to the task. They deliver a history lesson as riveting as any thriller this year, expertly pairing textbook facts with sharp, engrossing filmmaking. And they do it without falling prey to any lurid or sensationalist tactics -- a task as delicate as the crisis they're portraying. With such deftness well in hand, Thirteen Days delivers a hugely engaging look at the closest we've come to the end of the world...and makes you marvel at how we pulled back from the brink.

Review published 01.05.2001.

* * *

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