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THIRTEEN DAYS(director: Roger Donaldson; screenwriter: David Self; cinematographer: Andrzej Bartkowiak; editor: Conrad Buff; cast: Kevin Costner (Kenny O’Donnell), Bruce Greenwood (John F. Kennedy), Steven Culp (Robert F. Kennedy), Dylan Baker (Robert McNamara), Michael Fairman (Adlai Stevenson), Henry Strozier (Dean Rusk), Frank Wood (McGeorge Bundy), Kevin Conway (Gen. Curtis LeMay), Tim Kelleher (Ted Sorensen), Len Cariou (Dean Acheson), Bill Smitrovich (Gen. Maxwell Taylor), Peter White (John McCone), Elya Baskin (Anatoly Dobrinyn); Runtime: 140; New Line Cinema; 2000)
“A political thriller about President Kennedy’s most successful moments of his flawed presidency.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A political thriller about President Kennedy’s most successful moments of his flawed presidency, as he handles a major crisis with the Russians over missiles in Cuba. “Thirteen Days” makes JFK look good, detailing how his struggle wasn’t only with the Russians but with the Pentagon hard-liners. The film was adapted to the screen by David Self from a book entitled The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. It exaggerates the role of Kennedy, making it appear as if he single-handedly prevented a nuclear attack from the Russians and the start of WW111.

The film is a taut thriller, emphasizing how the Kennedy brothers stood together against all their adversaries and how JFK’s political team reacted in the nearly two-week period to the critical events of the Russians placing short and long range missiles in nearby Cuba.

Producer Kevin Costner padded his role playing Kenny O’Donnell the president’s trusted friend and political guru of his senate campaign, the special assistant to the president, as he over-extended the importance O’Donnell played during the crisis. He also was RFK’s Harvard roommate. In this film, he was not only the film’s top star but one of the key players during this critical time period. Whether true or not the film plays well as a slice of historical nostalgia, showing how both Kennedy and Khrushchev had to depend on each other’s diplomatic sanity to prevent an unbearable escalation of events.

The film dramatically opens on Oct. 16, 1962, when U-2 spy plane photographs establish that the USSR had smuggled medium-range ballistic missiles into Cuba and was within a couple of weeks of making operational nuclear weapons that could reach the American soil within five minutes.

The Kennedy team was shocked by this — as O’Donnell says, “I feel like we caught the Jap carriers steaming for Pearl Harbor.” Unsure of what to do, the president coming off his earlier failure in the Bay of Pigs and not impressing Khrushchev in their recent summit meeting stalls for six days, decided to keep the news a secret from his country as well as from his press secretary, Pierre Salinger. The Pentagon hawks, led by crazed right-winger Gen. Curtis LeMay and by a belligerent Gen. Maxwell Taylor, push for a military solution, telling the president that he must act fast and destroy the missiles before they are fully assembled. Kennedy must gulp hard a few times fearful he would be looked upon as an appeaser if he gave in to the Russians, yet afraid of being pushed into a nuclear war by the Pentagon.

Placed in charge of ExComm, the exec committee of the National Security Council, the pugnacious Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Culp) keeps looking for ways to avoid military action until the president gets one from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Baker), who comes up with the idea of a Naval blockade.

When the president addresses the public in his national TV and radio address on Oct. 22, he tells them of his quarantine plan and the reasons why. The rest of the events that took place have been documented by history. The film goes into detail about the inner circle intrigues this brought about in the White House offices filled with generals and JFK’s brain trust. There was uncertainty of how Khrushchev would respond to their actions, especially since they weren’t directly dealing with him.

What took place in the ensuing days were: risky low-level flights over Cuba to get more info about the missile installations; threatening encounters with Soviet tankers going to Cuba; the weakly portrayed dove U.N. Ambassador Stevenson’s surprisingly tough “hell freezes over” speech at the U.N.; the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane; uncertainty of whether Khrushchev was still in power and perhaps the victim of a hard-liner coup; and, the unofficial contact with a Russian KGB agent and top spy which led to a secret meeting between Bobby and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Dobrinyn that resulted in the last-minute deal, whereby Russia withdraws its missiles from Cuba and JFK privately reassures Khrushchev that 6 months down the road the U.S. will withdraw its missiles from Turkey.

It was absorbing and well-acted dramatics. Bruce Greenwood makes for an excellent JFK, he even resembles him. Steven Culp is adequate as RFK, also showing a striking resemblance to the character he portrays. Costner struggles with his Boston accent, but that’s good because if he felt more comfortable with it he probably would have been given more lines to the detriment of the film. This is an old-fashioned by-the-numbers way of recreating an historical story, but it’s fairly effective as to keeping it suspenseful. A large measure of the credit for that must go to Roger Donaldson in his ability as a director to keep everyone in his ensemble cast in line including Costner, whose performance was more low-keyed than I thought possible.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”