There are lots of men in Thirteen Days. Upstanding, committed men, wearing somber suits, short haircuts, and serious looks on their faces. And serious they should be, given that they’re reenacting the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the gravest, most planet-threatening events in recent U.S. history, when the Kennedy Administration famously stood toe-to-toe with the Soviets, and—as everyone knows—stared them down.
Starring Kevin Costner as presidential advisor Kenny O’Donnell, Roger (No Way Out) Donaldson’s movie aspires to be an old-fashioned political thriller, structured as a series of tense conversations in the White House (bouncing from one significant close-up to another) and cuts to those ominous, medium range ballistic missiles being installed in Cuba or U.S. spy planes and warships. Thank goodness, none of the action on screen is so outrageous as the film’s poster, which arranges its montage of images so that those missiles appear to be launched at the White House a la Independence Day, alongside the tagline, “You’ll never believe how close we came.”
Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker
(New Line Cinema)
There are, of course, many things that “we” do believe about what happened back in October 1962, for instance, that the Kennedys and company did the right thing, as proved by the fact that there was no nuclear war. And given such knowledge, the film has to find another means to create tension, that is, it explores the personalities involved (this exploration is limited to men in the U.S. , as the movie makes no attempt to guess at what the Soviets were thinking). Thirteen Days goes at this with a kind of fierce efficiency, showing the essential players—JFK, RFK, and O’Donnell—as brave, intelligent, and dedicated men who, with the exception of O’Donnell, never go home. This exception is striking, though it only takes a few minutes of screen time. The film opens as O’Donnell’s pleasant Leave It To Beaver-style family breakfast is interrupted by a fateful phone call. And so you get the point: he’s the stand-in for the rest of us, the regular guy, the non-Kennedy (he is, however, historically part of the so-called “Irish Mafia” that went to Washington with the Kennedys—as Costner put it on The Today Show, there was a rift in D, circa 1960s: “They were Irish, they were in an unfriendly environment”).
A bit later in the film, O’Donnell goes home again for a minute, primarily to hug his pretty wife (Lucinda Jenney) and suggest that she take the kids out of town (this isn’t exactly a practical suggestion, in the face of a nuclear missile attack, but thoughtful, in its way). Even this little bit of attention to O’Donnell’s homefront assigns him an emotional weight that the other men don’t have (which is disappointing mainly because some of them look like they’d be more interesting than O’Donnell). It also calls up one of Costner’s previous roles, that of Jim Garrison, who also brought his work home—only here, Costner affects a broad, almost cartoonish Boston accent, where in Oliver Stone’s JFK, he affected a broad, almost cartoonish Louisiana accent.
Meanwhile, the Kennedys—the President (Bruce Greenwood) and Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp)—are presented as heroic and stoic. Surely, there’s enough available lore on the Kennedys that it’s unnecessary to go digging into their imagined psyches. Still, the film offers some keen moments between the brothers, made especially fascinating because Greenwood and Culp have so clearly nailed their well-known body language, their shorthand communication with each other through gestures and glances. And in that sense, O’Donnell’s sort-of-insider-sort-of-outsider status proves useful, as in the several shots of the brothers leaning in to one another, speaking so softly that you can’t hear, and you’re left, with O’Donnell, wondering at their intensity and focus. It’s a reverent portrayal, but/and (depending on how you feel about such reverence), it comprises the most compelling moments in the film.
Still, and unfortunately, the actual decision-making process is increasingly less thrilling as it builds to its ostensible climax (or perhaps more precisely, the non-climax). Borrowing its title from Bobby Kennedy’s memoir of the event, based on the book, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis and other sources, David Self’s script feels caught between a rock and a hard place, wanting to be true to “history,” but needing to package it as “entertainment.” And so it structures the crisis as something of a personal test of the Kennedys’ mettle, with O’Donnell acting as moral cheerleader, logistical support, and on-the-ground liaison for the rest of us.
The film lays out the Kennedys’ options as ranging from making an aggressive first strike on Cuba (before the missiles are ready to shoot, a move that will likely inspire the Soviets to invade Berlin), to taking a public stand (the blockade of Cuba), to making a back channel deal with Khruschev (so no one loses face). These choices are neatly articulated as mini-speeches by historical figures, played by actors who sort of look like them, for example, Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), McGeorge Bundy (Frank Wood), Dean Rusk (Henry Strozier), General Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich). So, when one particularly hawkish advisor asserts, “The big red dog is diggin’ in our backyard,” there’s a ready (and by comparison, well-reasoned) counter-argument, that engaging in nuclear war is a bad idea; it’s obvious that the audience is expected to agree with the latter.
Clearly invested in a nostalgic vision of the Kennedys—as they represent all that was once “good” about political leadership—Thirteen Days sets itself a difficult task during our own era, when few people trust their elected officials to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing. But idealism and romanticism aren’t impossible to convey even in this “cynical” age; some might even say they’re more welcome (see, for example, The West Wing‘s great success). The biggest problem for Thirteen Days isn’t its rudimentary politics or rah-rah reminiscing, but its execution. Asking O’Donnell to bear the bulk of its emotional narrative is, frankly, asking too much, particularly of Costner’s limited range. And this, in turn, seems a problem in conception and structure. The film can’t figure an economy to convey its story’s built-in drama. On the one hand, it’s not a near-war movie, packed with exciting shots of weapons and recon planes. On the other hand, it’s also not a movie about the Kennedys scheming and conniving per se—you remain too distanced from them for that, and besides, the cutthroat politicking that was famously part and parcel of their good work is mostly toned down here. And so, you’re left out there with O’Donnell, not a particularly stimulating place to be.