The last time Kevin Costner got anywhere near John F. Kennedy’s presidency, namely Oliver Stone’s cinematic hallucination known as JFK, history took a beating like a narc in a biker bar. Thankfully, Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days doesn’t take anywhere near the number of liberties with the truth (how could it) and its historically questionable aspects are minor and forgivable as necessary dramatic licenses in the service of a tightly honed political thriller that also happens to be mostly true.
The thirteen days of the title are, of course, the period known to history as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world came to a full scale nuclear war during the entire Cold War. When presidential advisor Kenny O’Donnell (Costner) woke up the morning of October 14, 1962, his biggest worries were his son’s report card and the political ramifications of the guest list for Jackie’s (Stephanie Romanov) next party for the next midterm election. That sense of complacency is shattered, however, when photos from a U-2 spy plane reveal that the Soviet Union is in the process of installing medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles into Cuba.
The options for President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) seem limited at best, namely bomb the missile sites, bomb the shit out of Cuba in general or do both and then invade Cuba to forestall any attempt by the Soviets to install more missiles. He tasks his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Steven Culp), to take charge of the effort to find an alternative by the hastily assembled Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM), a body of some of the highest-ranking officials of the U.S. Government, included Defense Secretary McNamara (Dylan Baker), National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (Frank Wood), Secretary of State Dean Rusk (Henry Strozier) and General Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Kennedy finds himself pulled in multiple directions. He rejects the path of pure diplomacy advocated by U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), who is seen by most as weak and politically irrelevant. Conversely, still remembering the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he mistrusts the hawkish advice of his generals, especially Air Force chief Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway), who disdains the eventual solution, a block of Cuba by the Navy. The stakes are obviously high, since almost any military action against Cuba will provoke a Soviet response in West Berlin, requiring a response by NATO which will probably lead to all out war.
This film is especially adept at dramatizing the complexity of the events without bogging us down in minutia and exposition. It’s smart enough to let us ride shotgun with the U-2 spy planes and the low-level reconnaissance flight over Cuba, lest the film because a White House-bound talkfest. Despite the fact that the final outcome is known (since we are obviously all still alive), Thirteen Days manages to maintain a high level of tension throughout, focusing not on how it will end but rather on the question of “Just how did these guys get out of this seemingly impossible mess?”
Before this film, I probably never would have picked Bruce Greenwood to play JFK and no one is ever going to say that the actor is a spitting image for the late president. However, with judicious use of voice, posture and mannerisms, Greenwood inhabits this role and, before too long, we buy him completely in the role. As Bobby, Steven Culp also disappears into the role of one of the most recognizable men of the Twentieth Century.
Of course, only a handful of history geeks would recognize Kenny O’Donnell, the Kennedys’ political pit bull, if they fell over him so it doesn’t matter whether or not he resembles Kevin Costner. While O’Donnell’s role may have been slightly exaggerated for the benefit of the film’s biggest star, history is not rewritten so that O’Donnell single-handedly prevents World War III. Costner may not disappear into his role the way his co-stars do, but he gives one of his better dramatic performances in recent years. His Bostonian accent is certainly less problematic than his English accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
While I wouldn’t base my master’s thesis on it, Thirteen Days takes far fewer liberties with its subject than a lot of movies supposed based on true stories. Certainly, some aspects of the movie are hyped up for drama’s sake, especially Kennedy’s confrontations with his military advisors, but never to the point where they cross the line into pure fiction. In the end, this movie respects the intelligence of its audience and that’s more than you can say about a lot of films these days.