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In the War Room

History provides all the drama that's needed for 'Thirteen Days'

(c) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

January 12, 2001

By Barry Paris

Steven Culp, left, as Robert Kennedy, Kevin Costner as Kenny O'Donnell and Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy in "Thirteen Days."
I won't be the first or last wise wag to crack that "Thirteen Days" is not just the title but the palpable length of his huge new Cuban missile-crisis film. But having gotten that out of the way quickly, it must be added that this is a highly impressive undertaking and by far the best of the lot.

Unless you're a newly arrived, abused illegal alien from Uzbekistan being sheltered by Linda Chavez, you surely know the story: In October of 1962, President John F. Kennedy and his younger administration are staggered to learn that the Soviet Union is well along in installing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba with the capacity to reach every American population center but Seattle.

How to "take them out," in the precious few days before they become operational, without a nuclear war?

Director Roger Donaldson takes us through the bone-chilling confrontation and White House behind-the-scenes security meetings with admirably elaborate attention to historical detail for which he is to be commended. But for a central plot-device figure, he uses Kevin Costner with which choice he is to be commiserated.

Costner plays special assistant Kenny O'Donnell, second only to Attorney General Robert Kennedy as the president's closest, omnipresent confidant. This makes sense in that O'Donnell's face and persona are less familiar and thus more dramatically exploitable than those of JFK (Bruce Greenwood), RFK (Steven Culp), Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), Secretary of State Dean Rusk (Henry Strozier), U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), et al.

The problem comes in attempting to attach the word "dramatic" to the word "Costner." I loved him for "Dances With Wolves" and other noble roles, but much like Harrison Ford he's getting harder and harder to love, due to the fact that he has two facial expressions (serious and MORE SERIOUS) and two vocal patterns (tough and TOUGHER) to accompany them.

Ah, well. Greenwood and Culp are very good as the Kennedy brothers Culp bearing a terrific resembles to Bobby, Greenwood bearing little to none to Jack while Stephanie Romanov is given three lines and nothing to do as Jacqueline. This is an all-guy affair and the guys do well. Len Cariou has a nice turn as hawkish old Dean Acheson, and Kevin Conway is a marvelous maniac as Gen. Curtis ("Bomb 'em back to the Stone Age!) LeMay. Best of all is Fairman as "weak" Adlai Stevenson (more than a bid of a defamation), who rises to the occasion of exposing Russian deceit and brinkmanship to the world on live television.

Speaking of the Russians, however, there's a serious dearth of them. Only Elya Baskin as Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin has a real role. Where is photogenic Nikita Khrushchev when we need him here? The film's most wonderful sense involve powerful images of the tense U-2 and other surveillance flights over Cuba, and of all the frenzied military preparations for what virtually everyone felt would be World War III. It was a low-tech time when everybody still smoked, Morse code was till in use, it took 12 hours to communicate with Moscow, ship movements were monitored by moving little magnetic boats on a map instead of video screen, and you had to run off and find a room to take a phone call even from the President of the United States.

Overall, Donaldson does an excellent job of portraying how close we truly came to oblivion: I remember as do millions the terrified prayers in my Catholic school, tearful 24-hour confession lines at the cathedral, the hasty digging of bomb shelters, and our mothers' frantic supply trips to nearly bare grocery shelves.

A good 20 minutes of the film's leisurely 2 1/2-hour running time could have been shaved by eliminating the endless pauses that occur every time Costner as the emotionally stunted O'Donnell attempts to converse with his wife and children in his rather forced Massachusetts accent. Those conversations consist of his telling them he has something to say, followed by their patiently waiting while he fails to say it.

But "Thirteen Days" is, otherwise, intriguing storytelling and good history: the victory of a few smart cool-headed men of good will over militarists on both sides of the long-torn Iron Curtain, whose rusty remnant in Cuba our government still pretends is a threat.

'Thirteen Days' - RATING: PG-13 for language - STARRING: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp - DIRECTOR: Roger Donaldson

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