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Enjoyable Junk Triumphs over Dull Intelligence: "Thirteen Days"

(c) The River Cities' Reader

January 16, 2001

By Mike Schulz

Just because a movie is smart doesn't mean it'll avoid dullness. Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days, which documents the terrifying two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is evidence of this, a well-scripted, well-acted drama that might still cause you to doze off.

Steven Culp, Kevin Costner, and Bruce Greenwood in Thirteen Days

The story itself, of course, is endlessly fascinating. Set in October of 1962, the film details the political maneuverings within the Pentagon as President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp), presidential aide Kenny O'Connell (Kevin Costner), and numerous politicos and government officials react to the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba; war with the Soviets appears inevitable, and despite pressure from his top aides to use force in having the missiles removed, JFK is determined to keep peace. The tagline for the film's advertising campaign is "You'll Never Believe How Close We Came," and that simple sentence keys directly into Thirteen Days' hook; Donaldson, screenwriter David Self, and the talented cast do an expert job of showing how there seemed to be no option but to go to war, and it was only through incredible shrewdness, conscience, and luck that World War III was averted.

And yet the movie still doesn't come off as gripping entertainment, due to the nagging sameness of its presentation. The screenwriter has the daunting task of providing us with a great deal of information, which he does ably, but it makes the movie feel repetitive; we get scene after scene of JFK being briefed on the current state of the crisis, listen as military officials make strategic recommendations, see Costner's O'Donnell get indignant over their zealotry, and watch the president furrow his brow and ruminate over the next course of action. This scene is repeated with slight variations more than a half dozen times during the course of the film, and no matter how true to life it is, it doesn't exactly make for stirring cinema. (Rumination is not the most visual of activities.) Donaldson does some fine work with his actors, but he doesn't seem able to breathe much life into these static, behind-closed-doors sequences, and visually, the movie is very drab; it looks like it was shot in a '60s-era fallout shelter.

That's a shame, because Thirteen Days does have some crackerjack sequences, particularly when we're freed from the confines of the Pentagon. A scene in which American aircraft are shot at while photographing Cuban missile sites has some tension, and there are occasional (far too infrequent) shots of a panicked American public watching the news and fearing the worst; the film might have had more impact if we had a stronger sense of what the crisis meant to those outside of Washington. The cast, too, can hardly be faulted for its work. Greenwood and Culp are well-matched and give a lot of shading to roles that could've been played merely as caricature, and Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara and Michael Fairman as Adlai Stevenson are particularly strong. Even Costner, despite his laughable attempt at a Boston accent, shows some dramatic fire. But their hard work still amounts to little more than an above-average TV movie, one that should be lauded for its good intentions - and one that, perhaps, should even be seen for them - while its actual presentation rates a shrug.

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