Film and TV

A Glimpse Into the Abyss

Thirteen Days is a suspenseful look at the American government in the grip of a crucial, minute-to-minute, real-life crisis that threatens to destroy the country. No, it is not -- as the brief time span of the title makes clear -- about the recent election struggles, or the 1998 impeachment, or the Watergate hearings, but rather about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

For those too young to remember, this event was the high-water mark of the Cold War -- the closest the U.S. and the Soviet Union ever came to launching nuclear weapons at one another and triggering all-out nuclear war. Facing the real possibility of this horror was so terrifying for both sides -- let alone the rest of the world -- that the memory unquestionably worked to restrain direct belligerence between the superpowers afterward. (In film terms, it also presumably had the beneficial effect of inspiring Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.)

In Roger Donaldson's film version of the crisis, we see everything through the eyes of Ken O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), a member of John F. Kennedy's inner circle and certainly one of the least-known major figures in the Kennedy White House. Virtually every other major character in the film -- Stevenson, Rusk, Curtis LeMay, among many others -- is a familiar figure from the period.

On October 16, President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) is informed that spy planes have photographed the Russians moving nuclear missiles into Cuba -- an act that was considered a direct threat to the U.S. This triggers a series of meetings among JFK's political and military advisors, including brother Bobby (Steven Culp), McGeorge Bundy (Frank Wood), Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), General Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich), Dean Rusk (Henry Strozier), Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), Ted Sorenson (Tim Kelleher), General Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway), and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson (Len Cariou). The Kennedys seem to regard both Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Walter Adrian) and press secretary Pierre Salinger (Kelly Connell) as buffoons who need to be kept out of the loop.

As presented here, the most fascinating thing about the meetings -- which make up most of the film -- is the extent to which the situation is an internal crisis as well as an international one. Kennedy's immediate inner circle, represented here as JFK, Bobby, and O'Donnell, are not merely trying to figure out the best strategy for dealing with Russian president Nikita Khrushchev; they spend at least as much time trying to deal with the different political factions among the advisors. It's so clear that the generals are eager to push the situation into nuclear war that JFK has to have O'Donnell sneak behind them to inform various lower-ranking military figures that they are not to act without direct authorization from the president.

At one point, even the inner circle gets tightened: JFK and Bobby hatch a scheme on their own, behind O'Donnell's back, because they know he won't like it, and they don't want to hear his arguments. (It turns out to be a harebrained idea that makes the situation much worse.) When O'Donnell finally learns he's been circumvented, and why, he lambastes Bobby with the most cutting insult -- "This idea is that fucking bad; it's something your father would have done!" -- in reference to Joe Kennedy's appeasement of Hitler prior to American involvement in World War II.

Any film re-creating well-known historical events faces many potential pitfalls, particularly when the two central figures -- JFK and Bobby -- are so well documented and familiar to most of the audience. In terms of sheer impersonation, Culp's Bobby is more successful. Greenwood gives a nuanced performance that may be the film's best work, but at times his surface dissimilarities to JFK are jarring. There is only a slight physical resemblance, and his accent seems to go in and out. The most obvious example is when we hear him repeatedly say "Cuba" in meetings, rather than JFK's famous "Cuber" pronunciation; when it comes time to duplicate Kennedy's most famous speech of that period, "Cuba" would sound false to anyone who was alive at the time, so Greenwood finally says "Cuber," which only makes the problem more apparent. Costner has the luxury of playing a figure about whom the public has no preconceptions, but his accent also is inconsistent.

Director Donaldson has always done better with his suspense-oriented films (No Way Out, Marie) than with his other work (Cocktail, The Bounty). In Thirteen Days, he is never less than effective -- but that has negative as well as positive results. On the one hand, he keeps us worrying about the world coming to an end, even though we already know that it doesn't. On the other, in conveying a huge amount of historical data in less two and a half hours, the efficiency of his direction renders the movie somewhat characterless, like a top-rank made-for-TV production. The occasional personal moments, mostly involving O'Donnell's family, are strictly pro forma and uninspired.

Nevertheless, Thirteen Days is perfectly gripping for those old enough to remember the terror Washington, Moscow and the rest of the world lived with during that month in 1962. It is now such ancient history that it may shock viewers too young to have ever experienced the sense of living on the edge of annihilation.