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"Days" is Long on Facts, Short on Thrills

(c) The Virginian-Pilot

January 13, 2001

By Mal Vincent

RE-CREATING tension is not easy, but "Thirteen Days" has a nifty plot going for it. The world is squared off in a game of Cold War chicken with nuclear arms aimed at each other, and, for once, the United States doesn't have a big, wide ocean to protect it. Flash! Russian missiles have been discovered in Cuba and are capable of destroying any target in the eastern United States.

Director Roger Donaldson (who was responsible for a more entertaining but not as important Washington thriller called "No Way Out") tries a docudrama approach that depicts the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The result is a highly worthwhile film. Of course, we all know how it came out - particularly since we're still here. But knowing the ending didn't keep "Titanic" from generating a good amount of old-fashioned movie thrills. Here, Donaldson is stuck with a lot of solemn men standing around talking. The audience has to supply a good deal of the tension with their own constant reminders of how "important" all of this is. Little interpretation is offered. We aren't reminded that the crisis might have been brought about because the Russians perceived President John F. Kennedy as a pushover after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Or the fact that some of the public didn't believe that the missiles had actually been removed.

Bruce Greenwood is winning simply by how little he seemingly does in his role as JFK. He is a pleasant respite from all the over-done Boston accents that other actors have used. He's much less animated than, for example, William Devane was in the classic TV docudrama "The Missiles of October." Virginia Beach's own Steven Culp is fine as Bobby Kennedy, the faithful, cool brother who is the president's greatest ally. The trust and the loyalty of the two brothers is evident, for example, when they merely lean toward each other and touch. But their good cop vs. bad cop side is not evident here. Culp, who has his biggest movie role after an admirable stage and TV career, is not allowed to develop the dark side of Bobby Kennedy that we all know was there.

The main conflict develops between the cautious young president and his military advisers, who want to blow Cuba out of the water. The script, written by David Self, is based on "The Kennedy Tapes - Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis."

Kevin Costner gets top billing but is, thankfully, just one of the ensemble - as Kenny O'Donnell, special presidential adviser. Costner proves, yet again, that he is no actor and should not try accents. His Massachusetts accent here is not nearly as grating as the British one he tried as Robin Hood. In contrast, Culp and Greenwood (both of whom have Oscar buzz going for their supporting roles) suggest not only that they could be brothers but that they're from the same geographic location.

The military takes a drubbing. (There's small wonder that the Pentagon refused to cooperate in the filming). Kevin Conway is Gen. Curtis LeMay, almost snarling in his desire to strike first. Dylan Baker is fine as Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense. Michael Fairman is U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.

At almost two hours and 25 minutes, the film is a bit long but does well what it sets out to do: report rather than interpret. It is neither controversial nor very riveting but is well worth the trip to the theater.

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