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Review: The 13 Days The Earth Stood Still

Movie Brings Cuban Missile Crisis To Life


January 12, 2001

By Jay Boyar

Unlike such recent hits as Charlie's Angels and the big Grinch flick, Thirteen Days is not based on a television program.

So why does it seem so much like an especially grim episode of The West Wing?

Set in October 1962 and inspired by actual events, the new film (which opens today) is a political thriller that promises an insider's look at the White House during the Cuban missile crisis. Chronologically and evenhandedly, the movie explores the various forces that were tugging at President John Kennedy's sleeve during that super-tense Cold War confrontation.

If you were at the movies -- or watching Charlie's Angels reruns -- when you should have been studying American history, you may wonder what made the Cuban missile crisis so very dangerous.

The Soviet Union (i.e., the old Evil Empire) was bringing nuclear weapons into Cuba. The United States wanted them out. And, as explained in David Self's streamlined script, the political and military standoff brought the world to the very brink of war and, perhaps, nuclear annihilation.

Our eyes and ears on this Strangelovian scenario belong to Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), the president's top political adviser and a trusted friend. A family man with five kids, the conspicuously unglamorous Kenny wears a nerd's pocket protector and, in moments of extreme tension, pours himself a glass of New Frontier Scotch.

Through much of Thirteen Days, he huddles with the president (Bruce Greenwood) and the president's closest ally, Bobby Kennedy (Steven Culp), who also happens to be the chief exec's younger brother. Every so often, military, diplomatic and other experts are brought in, and some of them have thunderously strong ideas of their own.

Military officials like the blustery Gen. Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway) feel so intensely that the only sound course is all-out war that they keep trying to do end-runs around the president's meticulously calibrated gamesmanship with the Soviets. The film makes the point that it can be harder, and braver, to avoid a war than to fight one.

I mean it mostly as a compliment when I compare Thirteen Days to The West Wing. Like that compulsively watchable TV series, the new film is as much about the relationships among the people at and near the seat of power as it is about the crisis that they attempt to resolve.

And if Thirteen Days lacks the wit of The West Wing, at least it doesn't deal in the melodrama and brusque, obvious humor of the recent Contender -- or turn into a propaganda film, as that movie did. Thirteen Days may be missing a certain imaginative spark, but its even tone is very often strangely compelling.

Watching this film, you feel that you're getting something that is either fairly close to the real story or, at least, a plausible scenario. (I'll leave it to the historians to sort all that out: I was watching movies, too, when I should have been studying history.)

Now, before I go any further, I guess I need to deal with the accent issue. Apparently unchastened by his less-than-critically-acclaimed attempt at a British accent a decade ago in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Costner again essays an accent, this time a Massachusetts one.

I'm no expert on the matter, but I'd say that his accent is passable -- or, rather, it would be if we were not all so very aware of how Costner really sounds. You know that he's putting the accent on, and, at first anyway, it's distracting.

But Costner is smart to use his blandness as part of the character, as he did as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (1987). Once again, he's a government Everyman.

In the years since their assassinations, the Kennedy brothers have become such complex, larger-than-life figures in our imaginations that it's almost a relief that Thirteen Days limits itself to their political conduct in this one critical period. The movie doesn't ignore their Camelot legend; it's implicit in the respectful way that the brothers are framed and photographed.

The point is that the legend doesn't get in the way of the story at hand. And to a large extent, that's a tribute to the suggestive but close-to-the-vest performances of Greenwood and Culp.

Greenwood has an endearing stiffness that's a function of the president's bad back and which evolves into a form of courtliness. Culp, meanwhile, manages to suggest Bobby's fieriness without descending into caricature.

Roger Donaldson, the Australian-born filmmaker who directed Costner in No Way Out, is once again at the helm. The diabolical complexity of that 1987 film notwithstanding, Donaldson turns out to have a gift for clarity and simplicity, and that is a strong asset here.

If, in the end, Thirteen Days is basically a docudrama, it's a suspenseful, well-crafted one. I'm not sure if it's historically accurate, and I wouldn't call it art, exactly. But it makes the Cuban missile crisis come alive on the big screen with a hard-to-resist suspense.

Watching Thirteen Days, you might say, I learned to stop worrying and love the Cold War.

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