Thirteen Days (2000)

D: Roger Donaldson
S: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood

Gripping drama inspired by the release and cataloguing of white house audio recordings made during the Cuban missile crisis. To recap just in case: this was a key moment in twentieth century history in which the United States and the Soviet Union stood poised on the brink of a third world war. Following the introduction of nuclear weapons to communist Cuba by the Soviet Union in 1962, US president John F. Kennedy found himself in a difficult position of having to respond forcefully without bringing about armed conflict between the superpowers. It marked an escalation in the cold war and in a sense was the turning point, because subsequent to this moment of great heat, the war remained mostly cold. The film Thirteen Days (from the book The Kennedy Tapes by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow) is not so much a history lesson as it is an evocation of the atmosphere of tension and uncertainty which enveloped the main players (and the rest of the world). The events are seen primarily through American eyes though, specifically those of Kevin Costner as Kenny O'Donnell, an advisor and friend of the Kennedys. But given the individual's proximity to the action (exaggerated for the purposes of the screenplay, adapted for the screen by David Self), it proves to be a front row seat which the audience shares with equal and ever-mounting anxiety.

The film aligns itself with many recent conspiracy yarns in presenting Kennedy's dilemma not merely in terms of the genuine rigours of the crisis, but adding a smidgen of military/industrial complex conspiracy theory material by having him face warmongering generals and uncomprehending bureaucrats who seem eager to simply start shooting and get it over with. While there is nothing wrong with interpreting history as befits your point of view, of course, one must wonder if the spectre of Oliver Stone's JFK doesn't hover over the movie in more ways than the obvious two (setting, star). At least in this case the portrayal of John F. Kennedy as a worthy man and a great leader has some foundation in his illustrated actions rather than simply something suggested only by contrast with the forces of villainy ranged against him as in JFK. Thirteen Days is not quite the technical accomplishment that Stone's film was, but it shares some of its sense of pace and suspense and inspires the same curiosity about its relationship with fact. The gambit of adding conspiracy elements also allows the film to work as a thriller of course, and it is an entertaining and involving movie regardless of how you approach its texts and sub-texts. Like The Day of the Jackal, one of the most remarkable things about it is its ability to generate suspense despite the fact that the outcome is not in doubt. It really is edge-of-your-seat stuff which somehow never pauses for long enough for you to begin locating yourself outside the historical moment, and this is to director Roger Donaldson's credit.

Visually unremarkable (mostly confined settings with close up images of actors' faces), the film is nonetheless well directed in terms of how Donaldson controls its pace and rhythm. Aided by a strong script, solid editing, and good ensemble playing, the film has quite a relentless grip and holds together as both a human and geopolitical drama. For once there is also an excuse for the vehemently US-centred portrayal of a global situation. In this case, focusing exclusively on what is happening in the US (and mostly only in the corridors of power) increases the sense of uncertainty, as one never knows (as the players did not) what the 'other' is really thinking. At times it reminds you of the seventies conspiracy films in this regard, where the forces of darkness were rarely seen except in glimpses. Another of its strengths as a dramatic text however is the suggestion that rather than representing such'forces of darkness', Kruschev may well be in similar bind to that surrounding Kennedy, trapped by circumstance and advisors and unable to manoeuvre very far without help from those who should be the enemy. In this way the film is more suspenseful (second guessing the other guy becomes the stock-in-trade of the players), but it also becomes more even handed than we are used to in mainstream historical dramas. Realising that it is a guessing game and hearing speculation on motives both good and bad creates a sense of the awesome pressure and responsibility faced by these decision makers, and Kennedy in particular. The pressure on the public is not represented, but it is felt by the viewer, and this works for the film on the whole because again our attention is directed to very specific dramatic questions in a particular context.

In the key role of John F. Kennedy Bruce Greenwood gives a fully realised performance which combines historical mimicry with actual characterisation. Likewise Steven Culp is impressive as Robert Kennedy, and the two actors give a very strong reading of the people in question as both human beings and historical figures. Costner has an easier job and handles himself well enough. He tries not to grandstand too often, but the nature of the film is that his character serves as our conduit to this world of inner-circle machinations and therefore occupies the foreground. Scenes featuring his family luckily don't detract from the plot too much, and in fact are used strategically to decrease tension before mounting it again while moving to the climax. There is also one nice scene in which a frightened Soviet aide nervously communicates with him in an outer office while Robert Kennedy faces off against the Soviet ambassador behind closed doors. It is again a fleeting glimpse at the outside world, a pause for thought which serves a purpose. The rest of the supporting cast are uniformly good, and whatever about the accuracy of the portrayals of individual people (some historians have already questioned one or two readings), there is a good sense of the dynamic of their interactions. Michael Fairman is particularly notable as Adlai Stevenson.

Thirteen Days is an exciting and absorbing movie which goes about its business with efficient craftsmanship and a laudable lack of self-inflation. It may be just as tricky an historical text as JFK and others of its ilk, but in itself it is both interesting and thought-provoking. It runs a little long, but should appeal to a wide audience once they hook into the situation in the first place. Despite the addition of one or two action scenes, it is primarily a talk-based film, so though they probably should see it, kids and teens may not wish to avail of the opportunity.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.