The news that a new movie covers the Cuban Missile Crisis-- in which the Soviets sent first strike nuclear missiles to Cuba, and President Kennedy engaged in a battle of wits and nerves with the Communist leadership-- prompts a question:
Why should we care?
This subject has been covered in numerous ways, both in documentary and dramatic retellings, so why should moviegoers shell out nearly 8 bucks to cover familiar territory?
Several reasons. First, ANY time a good film is released it is worth our attention. That's not an everyday occurrence.
Second, and even more rare, "Thirteen Days" is a film that deals in a balanced way with the Kennedys. Most movies treat JFK and RFK as either plaster saints, or the upper crust version of guests on the Jerry Springer show. This is the story of a man rising to an occasion, not a giant in the right place at the right time; and is even honest about the downside of the deal.
Third (though this is a contributing factor to the second reason) is a pair of terrific performances by Canadian Bruce Greenwood ("The Sweet Hereafter," "Rules of Engagement" and various TV roles) and TV actor Steven Culp ("JAG") as JFK and RFK respectively.
Perhaps in anticipation that people would question the necessity for rehashing the events of October, 1963, "Thirteen Days" tries something a little different. The story is told through the eyes of presidential advisor Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Kostner).
Kenny O'Donnell was a political advisor to JFK from what was called the Boston Irish Mafia (not necessarily an organized crime reference) who had worked on Bobby's Senate race and was an old-time political operative and trusted friend of the family.
Kostner may be the reason that many will come to see this good film, but he is actually more of a distraction than an asset. For one thing, he is the only big name in the movie (and it's hard to forget that he starred in Oliver Stone's atrocity, "JFK).
But the real problem is his performance. Kostner furrows his brow and concentrates so hard on his accent that he doesn't really interact with the other actors convincingly. "You cahl this a repaht cahd? I'll tahk to you la-tah"
The two television actors far outshine the movie superstar, by underplaying the accents and going, instead, for the emotion of their words rather than the mere inflections.
But the movie is told from O'Donnell's point of view, so for better or for worse, we're stuck with a lot of Kostner. On the other hand, O'Donnell's perspective is what makes "Thirteen Days" unique. Historians can argue whether O'Donnell's role in the crisis was as large as portrayed; but unlike most films, which would decry the presence of "political" advice at such a time, "Thirteen Days" shows that accountability to the people is one of the strengths of our system, not a weakness.
Some accounts have portrayed the crisis as a heroic story of John F. Kennedy standing in the breach between two belligerent militaries, eager for war. "Thirteen Days" shows JFK's weaknesses and strengths in this area, and even posits that our military had good reason to doubt him after Bay of Pigs-- which also led to the Soviets thinking they could get away with this aggressive move. Above all, the movie says, the biggest risk would have been to do nothing. Despite arguments among the good guys, there is no doubt who the bad guys are here. (The notable exception is a cartoonish, slavering portrayal of Air Force general Curtis LeMay by Kevin Conway.)
Director Roger Donaldson, a long-time studio hack of no particular distinction, actually does a fine job when he plays it straight, from the smoky White House conferences, to very exciting flights-- both with low level fighter bombers and U2s in the stratosphere-- over Cuba.
But whenever Donaldson inserts a "Look at me, isn't THIS arty!" shot, the result is as jarring as Kostner's accent. For the first third of the movie, Donaldson irritatingly switches from color to black and white with no discernible rhyme or reason.
Also, Donaldson does his level best to cram as many scenes of nuclear mushroom clouds into the movie as possible. But instead of giving a feeling of impending doom (especially since even the most historically illiterate audience member is bound to know we never had a nuclear war with the Soviets), it just slows down what is already a long film. The symphony of mushroom clouds during the credits are more reminiscent of "Dr. Strangelove" than anything serious.
At its best, "Thirteen Days" is as gripping as a good thriller, and as informative as a good documentary. After a decade of Oliver Stone, that's a lot to be grateful for.