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Beside Costner's Accent, Film's Good

(c) Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)

December 25, 2000

By Bob Strauss, Film Critic

The makers of "Thirteen Days" take as odd an approach to filming the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as their star, Kevin Costner, does to his Boston-by-way-oaton-Rouge speaking voice in the picture.

The filmmakers, however, succeed. Set almost entirely in and around the Oval Office, the movie zeroes in on President John F. Kennedy (played by Bruce Greenwood, with a nice, unfussy indifference to looking and sounding perfect), his brother Bobby (a thoroughly convincing, though anything but waxworks, impersonation by Steven Culp) and their most trusted nonrelative adviser, Beantown political operative Kenneth P. O'Donnell (Costner in a role whose importance has been inflated beyond the historical record).

While this is essentially a TV docudrama approach to what was the closest the world ever came to extinction, it works a lot better than you would expect. Basically, as the three men try to reckon which move to make next, a very gripping form of intellectual suspense takes hold. All anybody really does is talk, but as the uncertainty and the stakes grow bigger and starker with each passing October day, you really come to appreciate the hard strategic and ethical thinking - not to mention the harrowing guessing - that went into averting World War III.

The deliberation wasn't just a blind chess game with the Kremlin, either, but a multifront nightmare. Mere months after the disastrous Bay of Pigs attempt to invade Castro's Cuba, the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in the communist Caribbean nation was catnip to the Joint Chiefs, who had yet to learn the lessons they soon would from Vietnam.

The younger, well-educated members of Kennedy's administration favored blockading the island from further Russian shipping until Moscow agreed to remove the weapons - itself a technical act of war. But the World War II vintage hawks in charge of the military wanted to go a lot further. Basically, they advocated incinerating Cuba before the missiles became operational and could return the same fire to most points east of the Mississippi. They didn't think these Ivy League whippersnappers, and especially their rich boy with the Hitler-appeasing father, had the guts to do what real men could clearly see needed to be done.

The immensely smart idea David Self's screenplay sticks to is that the Kennedys and O'Donnell were never quite sure which way to go. The trigger-happy likes of General Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway) were undeniably right that the longer action was delayed, the larger the threat to the United States grew. The Russians couldn't be trusted - when the true nature of their motives could even be deciphered - and the Kennedys were as uncertain as anybody else was of their own gut feelings that brinksmanship and diplomacy could win the day.

Everybody except, in this scenario anyway, O'Donnell. With the combined confidence that 20-20 hindsight and movie hero stature bestows, Costner all but turns this everyman observer of the great men's finest moments into the unsung champion of the whole deadly mess.

We did say "all but," however, and it is a credit to Greenwood and especially Culp's superb judgment and craft that they humanize the often idealized brothers so thoroughly here that even Costner's distracting drawl can't divert our attention from their fascinatingly thoughtful portrayals.

The director, Roger Donaldson, made a very different kind of political thriller with Costner, "No Way Out," some while back. While this is a far more cerebral exercise, he does, in the Hollywood vernacular, "open up" the picture with a few action scenes involving ships, planes and U.N. Security Council debates. In an ineffective attempt to give the film deeper human resonance, Donaldson and Self also give O'Donnell a few unremarkable, worried conversations with his wife and some of their 200 or so kids.

But for the most part, Donaldson avoids predictable melodramatic embellishments, even depictions of rising public unease that, of course, would be historically justifiable. While a large cast of vaguely remembered public figures is paraded through various conference rooms, these sharply etched but unobtrusive characters will only deflect the attention of the most obsessive Camelot wonks.

For the rest of us, whose tolerance for dramatizations of all things Kennedy was burned out decades ago, "Thirteen Days" offers a rare glimpse at why, with good reason for a change, Jack and Bobby deserved to be appreciated.

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