Thirteen Days

| January 16, 2001

One big problem with telling historical stories in movies is that we know the conclusion going in, so keeping an audience interested is more difficult.
James Cameron was successful with Titanic…Big boat hits iceberg an sinks…news at 11… and Oliver Stone wasn’t with Nixon. Please add director Roger Donaldson (Species, The Getaway) to the list of successes with Thirteen Days, the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. This is one of the top 10 films of 2000.
Starring Bruce Greenwood (Rules of Engagement, Double Jeopardy) as John F. Kennedy, Steven Culp as his brother Robert (he played RFK in Norma Jean & Marilyn), and Kevin Costner as Kenny O’Donnell, Thirteen Days takes us from discovery to resolution of the cold war game of cat and mouse that took us closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any other time from the end of WWII to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even though I knew how the movie would end, the drama was felt from the very first time that the Russian missiles are found in Cuba, being brought to operational status. Donaldson takes you through the entire process of military and political posturing, both inside and outside of our government.
For those who don’t follow politics very closely, Thirteen Days is a primer on how divisive different factions can be within an administration. A president truly must be a strong leader instead of a delegator. (ooops…insert my political feelings here.). In fact, from a story point of view, Thirteen Days is much more interesting when it is following the positioning each side WITHIN our government, rather than without. The outside face is not the main story you will see.
The balance between Oval Office, military operations, and public reaction is skillfully counterbalanced in the story line. Costner’s trips home and around Washington DC showed a country on the verge of total panic while the tension between the Kennedy brothers and cabinet members reflected the pressure of responsibility and showed them to be human, a side of our leaders that we rarely see.
Costner is in top form as the assistant to Kennedy. You see the balance of loyalties to friend, boss, family and self that must come into play in times of great stress. Greenwood is wonderful as JFK. He doesn’t push to imitate him, but he gets the emotion. There was also a wonderful uncredited performance by Michael Fairman as Adlai Stevenson. And because it always seems to be an issue when Costner takes a part where the character has an accent I’ll mention it: his accent, as well as everyone else’s comes and goes. But folks: GET OVER IT. The real butchers of the New England twang are Costner’s character’s kids. Jeez, can it get any thicker?
As what might not be an historical point of view, Kennedy seems to base part of his decisions on a book he had recently read, Days of August (sorry, I’m not sure of the title, or if it is a bit of fiction by the screenwriter). In it decisions made around the time of World War 1 helped create the problems of World War 2. He did not want to follow the incorrect patterns of assumptions. In a corollary to the old theorem that “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”, he felt that “Those who make assumptions based on history, will pay the price.” At the end of Thirteen Days we are given a glimpse into Defense Secretary MacNamara (Dylan Baker is remarkable, here) and Dean Rusk (Henry Stroizier) inner thoughts and their shared feeling that they had communism on the run but were unable to “run the table” on them. This includes getting the Communists out of South East Asia… otherwise known in this country’s history as a little place called VIETNAM. If only hindsight was indeed 20-20.
Interestingly enough, we saw this movie the day after another war picture, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which shows two political factions going to war on a much smaller scale. They too, chose to ignore the political realities of the day. From a which is better point of view, I hope that Thirteen Days gets the same consideration as the “indie-pro” for Oscar nominations; it wasn’t as pretty, but it certainly was a better story.

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