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Going Ballistic The World Almost Went to War Again in 1962

Kevin Costner's "Thirteen Days" Tells the Story.

(c) Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)

January 2, 2001

By Glenn Whipp, Staff Writer

Kevin Costner calls his new movie, "Thirteen Days," an "$80 million art house film," and if that seems like an oxymoron, then Costner says you haven't been paying attention to what's playing at your neighborhood multiplex in recent months.

"This is an elegant, smart movie, but it doesn't appeal to that large mainstream audience that studios crave these days, it just doesn't," Costner says. "But I think movies like this still need to be made. The question might soon be: Does anyone want to make them?"

For a while, it seemed that no one wanted to make "Thirteen Days," a taut historical drama about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962, major cold war confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the USSR increased its support of Fidel Castro's Cuban regime, and in the summer of 1962, Nikita Khrushchev secretly decided to. The movie bounced between three studios and numerous directors before New Line Cinema put up $35 million to help finally get the film before cameras. After directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Ed Zwick, Phil Alden Robinson, Martin Campbell and even Steven Spielberg flirted with helming the movie, the producers (who included Costner) finally settled on Roger Donaldson, who had worked with Costner before on "No Way Out."

Everyone agrees it was a long and winding road, one made more difficult by the producers' insistence that "Thirteen Days" be an epic that depicted not only the behind-the-scenes decision-making but also the large-scale military maneuverings. Donaldson calls the movie a cross between an intimate character-driven drama like "Twelve Angry Men" and a crowd-pleaser like "Top Gun."

"There's everything here a director could dream of," Donaldson says. "You don't get too many opportunities to make serious movies that feature naval blockades."

"I wanted to make a big movie," says producer Armyan Bernstein, who shepherded the film through its many stages and studios. "I wanted to be in the skies above Cuba and out on the ships that were surrounding Cuba. I wanted to the Russians installing the ballistic missiles in Cuba and the American military responding to that threat.

"Some people saw it as a smaller film. That's why Universal and then Sony ultimately pulled out. But many historians believe that this is the greatest crisis that mankind has ever faced in terms of what the outcome might have been. There are a lot of movies that get made in this town about men fighting. But there are very few films about men trying not to fight. So I wanted to make this film with all the detail and substance that I knew it deserved."

Bernstein, who also produced last year's controversial historical drama "The Hurricane," has been fascinated with the Cuban missile crisis since his days as a history major at the University of Wisconsin. He first imagined making a "Titanic"-type love story set against the backdrop of the crisis, but he couldn't find an angle that worked.

Then he met Earthlink co-founder Kevin O'Donnell, whose father, Kenny, worked as one of John F. Kennedy's top advisers. Bernstein had found his way into the story. O'Donnell, as played by Costner, would serve as the audience's Everyman, a witness to the bickering between military leaders who pressed for an air strike and invasion of Cuba, and the Kennedys, who wanted to explore other solutions.

The little-known O'Donnell had the official title of presidential appointments secretary, but many close to the Kennedys consider him to be one of JFK's most trusted political advisers. The fiercely tough O'Donnell, along with Kennedy's cabinet members, CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff officials, attended all the strategy sessions during the missile crisis. He typically said little during the meetings, saving his thoughts for when he was alone with the president.

"He was the president's eyes and ears," says "Thirteen Days" screenwriter David Self. "In public, he kept quiet. But behind the scenes, he was expected to be very candid. Kennedy really listened to him."

Producer Bernstein, fresh from last year's debate over historical inaccuracies in "The Hurricane" (many thought the controversy severely hurt the movie's box office and Oscar hopes), is quick to admit that "Thirteen Days" takes some license with O'Donnell's role.

There are several scenes - O'Donnell driving Bobby Kennedy to a meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, O'Donnell exhorting JFK before a television address among them - that are fictionalized. But, for the most part, the movie has the feeling of truth.

"You can't get everything right," Bernstein says. "That's a false idea, this 100 percent devotion to accuracy. Films can never aspire to aspire to that kind of slavishness."

Adds Costner: "People may take issue with what we've done. But Kenny was our only way into the story, so we had to create some dramatic leaps just to keep a through line. It's not like we did this to appease me. I can think of only a couple of scenes that I suggested we add for my character.

"I knew that the responsibility was on my shoulders, but I knew what my responsibility was, and that was letting everybody be what they're supposed to be. And Jack Kennedy was golden in this movie, as was Bobby. It was important that I make sure that happened, as the actor and the producer. So it wasn't a star turn, but I've gotten quite a bit of attention out of it."

Likely, too, to garner some attention are the two actors portraying John and Bobby Kennedy. Canadian Bruce Greenwood, best-known for his work with independent filmmaker Atom Egoyan, thoughtfully underplays JFK, while Steven Culp captures Bobby's energetic soul. Both actors admit that the challenges inherent in portraying 20th-century icons were daunting.

"It kept me awake at night," Greenwood says. "Trying to step into those shoes, they come up to your forehead. I didn't think I'd ever be able to represent Jack Kennedy. In the end, I just had to let it go."

Says Culp: "One note I kept making to myself was: Don't do an impersonation. I tried to tie in the physical life with the interior life and attempted to capture the spirit that lived within Bobby's many contradictions."

Costner repeatedly calls the Kennedys' actions during the Cuban missile crisis "golden," and Greenwood, who now has a huge library of Kennedy books in his home, enthusiastically agrees.

"If they were put on earth for no other reason than to preside over those 13 days, that would be enough," Greenwood says.

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