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Thirteen Days

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Where were you the night before the world almost ended? I was in Scarola's restaurant in New York on October 22, 1962 when at 7 p.m. all the nation's radios were turned to hear President Kennedy's speech about his actions against the Soviet Union. The president had set up a blockade of Cuba as Soviet ships loaded with nuclear materials headed toward Havana harbor. This was the big showdown. Would the big Eastern bully back down and turn, or would the boat ram the blockade at the hazard of nuclear war? Was there really that much risk? As I remember, living here in America's Ground Zero, not a single soul headed out of the Big Apple for Tierra del Fuego. Kennedy had given us the confidence in his action that only a man like Franklin D. Roosevelt could have inspired. Nevertheless, perhaps the Cuban missile crisis put the world closer to nuclear devastation than any other event during the Cold War.

The Cuban Missile crisis is a story that, of course, should be told, especially since any kid under the age of seventeen probably thinks the cold war is his mom's fight with the landlord for not sending up more heat to the apartment. In fact the tale was told, closer to the event and yet far enough away to get perspective, in a 1974 TV film "The Missiles of October." Since I'm not seventeen, alas, I recall seeing that one and was impressed by its portrayal of events occurring in the Soviet Union as wlel. The current picture gives the impression that the USSR exists only in the UN building when the delegates are meeting to discuss the situation.

As you watch "Thirteen Days" you get the sensation that the Cold War was actually a struggle not between the U.S. and the Soviet Union or the U.S. and Cuba, but among the various people high up in the executive branch of our government. You may also think that the twenty-odd people who meet regularly with the president are about the only folks who care about the goings on, since we see only the average citizens only in brief moments glued to their TV sets during a presidential address, though we eavsdrop on the soulful wife and preppy kids of the special assistant to the president, Kenneth P. O'Donnell (Kevin Coster doing a horror-show imitation of a Boston accent).

Director Roger Donaldson is stuck with a particularly talky script, the sort that could use some cuts, so he tries to nudge some excitement by several almost irrelevant shots of nuclear explosions, even lacing the opening credits with shots of missiles going off like fourth of July fireworks. By focusing on the president's special assistant, he gives us an appropriately distanced view of the chief executive, played by Bruce Greenwood, whose advisers look fairly close to the people they represent.

Though skipping over the key point that Sen. Kenneth Keating was the first VIP who warned the administration of the presence of missiles set up in Cuba by the Soviet government--weapons that could destroy much of America's capacity to retaliate to say nothing of millions of lives with just five minutes' warning--we do get a picture of our Washington DC honchos as a bunch with anything but monolithic opinions on what to do about this extremely dangerous situation. UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman) on the left wants negotiation; General "bomb-Vietnam-back-to-the-Stone- Age" Curtis LeMay on the right wants go to in with a full-force strike to "take out" the missiles. As opinions fly throughout the film and as people at the highest levels of government throw their authority around and one-up each other, we get the picture. Presidential advisers are as divided as the American voters are today--49% wanting this solution, 49% wanting the other.

While "Thirteen Days" is an excellent lesson in political history well suited to high-school and junior-high kids (who would have no trouble getting in to see this PG-13 work so- rated simply because even the president uses some nasty words), the film lacks the balance that could have been stimulated if we could have seen similar arguments occurring in Moscow among Khruschev and his advisers. (There was some thought given in Washington that Khruschev might have been overthrown, his place taken by hard-liners who would defy the American blockade, or quarantine.) Andrej Bartkowiak's camera does throw in some exciting shots of reconnaissance jets flying over Cuban palm trees to snap pictures of the partially hidden missile areas.

If you are unaware of the hottest event in the Cold War count your blessings: viewers who are uninformed will be filled with suspense...did the world blow up in 1962 or did we muddle on? Those who know the story, particularly those who lived through the events, would likely find the film on the dry side--as I did.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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