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Thirteen Days

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Thirteen Days

Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood
Director: Roger Donaldson
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 138 Minutes
Release Date: January 2001
Genres: Drama, Suspense





Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

When the Cuban missile crisis happened in 1962, I was too little to understand the particulars. I remember sitting on the carpet in front of our black and white TV while John F. Kennedy spoke in solemn tones about the conflict. Afterwards, my father looked grim and my mother unusually anxious as they discussed what the young president had said. In bed that night, I tried unsuccessfully to sort it out. All I really knew was that a face-off was occurring over Russian rockets and, if somebody didn't back down, there was a good chance that the world would come to an end.

"Thirteen Days" provides a flawed but gripping look at the United States' side of the crisis and shows that the men in the White House were just as scared as I was. We see events primarily through the eyes of presidential aide Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), a former classmate of Bobby Kennedy and a close friend and confidant of both the Kennedy boys. There are positives and negatives to the "World According to Kenny" storytelling motif. On the plus side, it keeps the focus firmly on the inner circle, establishing and maintaining a unique intensity. By following O'Donnell, the filmmakers can offer personal observations and glimpses of family life without concocting situations or exchanges for John or Bobby Kennedy.

But the approach puts blinders on the audience similar to those that were on the President and his advisors. Amazingly, there was no direct line between the White House and the Kremlin in those days. For the most part, messages were filtered through public speeches and private meetings with ambassadors. On October 16, 1962, when U.S. aerial spy photographs revealed the presence of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, the White House saw what Russia was doing, but had no idea why.

And neither does the audience. The truth is that, after dealing with President Kennedy at a summit meeting, Soviet Premier Khrushchev dismissed our commander in chief as a lightweight and decided that the USSR could get away with such a daring stunt. That's an important piece of information that we never hear during "Thirteen Days." In fact, over the course of the film's 144 minutes, we never get any specifics on the Russian leader's mindset.

It's not as if the facts were unavailable. A number of documentaries depict the goings-on in both Washington and Moscow, as did ABC in the early '70s, when the network presented "The Missiles of October," a well-received dramatization starring William Devane as John Kennedy, Martin Sheen as Bobby and Howard da Silva as Khrushchev.

While the filmmakers behind "Thirteen Days" would likely argue that their approach makes dramatic sense, I believe the film would not have suffered by presenting a complete view. At the very least, why not include substantial informative crawls at the beginning and the end of the story?

The production has a few other problems. After watching the long, remarkably effective music-free stretch in "Cast Away," I was acutely aware of the scoring here. When the screen is filled with characters heatedly discussing the fact that nuclear war could break out at any time, do we really need orchestral cues to feel tense? I think not. And why, oh why, does the film periodically shift from color to black and white?

Speaking of needless affectations, what about Kevin Costner's Boston accent? The oft-maligned actor told an interviewer, "Luckily, Ken's accent wasn't as strong as the Kennedys' accent, but I still studied hard because I know I did a really lousy accent in 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' and I didn't want to take that kind of heat again." Apparently, old habits die hard, because, despite his protestations, Kevin offers a repeat performance. He starts the film with a broad, metallic accent, then fades into his standard Malibu Ken mode. Sadly, the brassy Boston accent pops up throughout the film, mostly during family scenes that were probably shot together early in the production.

Accents aside, Costner does fine work, adjusting his style so that he doesn't overshadow the principals. As for the lead characters, Steven Kulp is strong as Bobby Kennedy, projecting a sense of great energy being contained by propriety, while Bruce Greenwood, neatly underplaying his role, creates a John F. Kennedy that feels like a real person instead of a cultural icon. Impressive. The supporting cast is sturdy, with Michael Fairman a standout as U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.

Despite its problems, "Thirteen Days" offers a chilling look at how close to destruction our world came in 1962. Hopefully, those who appreciate the film will seek out additional information so they can learn what happened on the instigator's side of this life and death chess match as well.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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