by Jon Bastian
Roger Donaldson and David Self bring us a compelling and suspenseful recreation of what almost became World War III.
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Historical films about well-known events have a built-in disadvantage from word one. We all know how the story ends. The scrappy rebels will drive out the British, the Union will prevail, Japan will be defeated in WW II. The trick is to give us a compelling hook and to create suspense despite our foreknowledge. In both those regards, Thirteen Days, documenting the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, succeeds.
The big appeal to this film is that it puts us right in the West Wing, with both John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood, Rules of Engagement) and his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Steven Culp, Nurse Betty), as major characters. The screenplay, adapted by David Self (The Haunting) from the book The Kennedy Tapes by Ernest May and Philip D. Zelikow, manages to turn transcripts into drama, and what a gripping drama it is. These men, along with their various advisors and cabinet members, are literally juggling the fate of the world as they try to second-guess the Soviet Union’s motives in putting nuclear missiles in Cuba. Something that’s been forgotten since the implosion of the USSR is that, for nearly fifty years, the planet lived under constant threat of nuclear war. Anyone old enough to have endured those “duck and cover” drills in elementary school probably also grew up thinking that World War III was an inevitability, not a possibility. In the two weeks in October documented in Thirteen Days, we all came as close as we ever did to annihilation.
Self and director Roger Donaldson (Dante’s Peak) choose to let events unfold exactly as they did to the White House and the world, beginning with the fateful U-2 spy plane mission that first spotted Soviet missile installations. This is the match that’s struck in the first frame, and the fuse it lights continues to burn throughout, heading toward the powder keg that cannot be fired. The crisis is a very tense chess game, but the twist here is that the players have to decide on their next move before they have the advantage of seeing what their opponent has done. And, even though we have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, it’s obvious at every step of the way that there is no clear right decision for the president to make. Should he call an air strike to bomb the nukes out of existence? Appease the Russians? Blockade Cuba? Each possible path has its own pros and cons, but the big con — DefCon 1 — dangles as a Damoclean threat over everything.
There’s only one weak link in Thirteen Days, and that’s its star, Kevin Costner, who plays advisor to the president Kenny O’Donnell. He’s about as wooden and dull onscreen as ever, but since his character mainly functions as a sounding board to get our bits of action out of the Kennedy brothers, he isn’t that annoying. However, Costner attempts a Boston accent here that, at times, makes him sound annoyingly like Elmer Fudd, especially in his early scenes before we have a chance to get used to it. Perhaps it’s a good thing, though, that the star is so bland, because it gives the rest of the cast a chance to shine, and every single one of them does.
The big surprise here is Steven Culp, who is not only an absolute dead-ringer for RFK, but does a hell of an acting job. Likewise, Bruce Greenwood’s Kennedy is on the nose, and both men avoid the trap of playing these two icons as plastic heroes. We see the Brothers K as real people, flaws and all, stuck in the middle of a terrible decision. Sometimes, they make mistakes, pretty big ones. Sometimes, they manage to do the right thing.
Also impressive is Dylan Baker (Requiem for a Dream) as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the man stuck in the middle between the Commander-in-Chief and the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, protecting the wishes of the former against the apparently overwhelming desire of the latter to go to war. The uncredited Michael Fairman (Forces of Nature) gives us a compelling turn as Adlai Stevenson, the appeasement-prone failed presidential candidate who finally gets to shine during a confrontation with the Soviet ambassador at the United Nations. It’s a touching portrait of an elder statesman at the end of his career who still has one great moment left in him.
Storywise, the only shortcoming I saw in Thirteen Days was that we don’t get any of the Soviet side of things, but perhaps that’s trying to stretch it into a different kind of film. It wasn’t until a post-Glasnost conference, when American and Russian officials compared notes, that the world really found out exactly how close we’d come to war. For example, despite CIA information to the contrary, the Cuban nukes were armed from the moment they arrived. Also, the Russian military had orders to launch a first strike the moment American forces fired on any Russian ships, and the pulling of that trigger comes extremely close here, and the audience knows the full ramifications of any such move even without knowing about the above mentioned conference. Still, the filmmakers do an adequate job of informing us of what’s at stake, even without that information. If you know the details that were revealed after the fact, the film will be a bit deeper for you. If you don’t, you’ll still get the point.
It’s a point that still needs to be made — diplomacy cannot happen in the dark. All parties involved had a deep, long-standing suspicion and mistrust of each other, convinced that their opponents had only one goal: World Domination. Maybe both sides did. Maybe they did not. The point is, Kennedy could probably have solved the crisis on Day One if only he’d been able to pick up a phone and talk to Khrushchev. That was never an option, and the ever-ratcheting gamesmanship that results is the true delight of Thirteen Days.
Certainly, the nuclear threat between Super Powers is probably over, but there are still dangers in the world that could be just as catastrophic in their end result. By showing us how one such disaster was averted, Thirteen Days also provides a blueprint for avoiding such events in future. It takes a strong and intelligent leader in the big chair, with a grasp of how the world interacts and the ability to examine the future results of his actions five steps down the line.
In that regard, Thirteen Days is also a clarion call that we aren’t out of the woods yet and, in fact, may have just gone in deeper than we’ve been in almost a decade. After all, seeing the Kennedys at work onscreen is only one more reminder that some people are most definitely no JFK.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles and is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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