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'Days' portrays suspense

As JFK, Bruce Greenwood out-acts Kevin Costner in this film about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

(c) Arts & Entertainment

January 18, 2001

By Jay Cridlin, Managing Editor

Before I watched "Thirteen Days," a story of the Cuban Missile Crisis starring Kevin Costner, I had heard a review calling it "the best film Oliver Stone never made." Personally, I had always bestowed that honor upon Beastmaster 2, but from what I knew of "Thirteen Days" — it was a White House picture featuring a portrayal of John F. Kennedy — I could see where the reviewer was coming from.

Though it may not have been the best film Oliver Stone never made — not enough blood and not enough controversy to fit Stone's tastes — it is a triumph of storytelling that will at least have you locked to your seat, if not teetering on the edge of it.

The plot circles around the Cuban Missile Crisis, so anyone who can't follow it should feel free to consult their history books at this time. It is 1962, President. Kennedy and his staff learn that the Soviet Union has placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, and the nation sits on the brink of nuclear war while the White House frets over the situation for a grand total of — you guessed it — 13 days.

The story is told primarily through the eyes of Kenneth O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), a special assistant to President Kennedy who, along with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, is one of the president's two closest confidantes.

The film is indeed a compelling depiction of a compelling time in the nation's history, and for this alone the producers already receive one thumbs-up. The Cuban Missile Crisis is still fresh in the minds of many Americans, and had the producers failed to accurately depict the tension it created, the film would have bombed (no pun intended). But despite the film's two-and-a-half hour length, the screenplay is taut and riveting enough to keep the audience's eyes locked to the screen. It's your classic Titanic scenario — you already know what's going to happen, but you get caught up in the plot nonetheless.

Costner gives a heartfelt performance despite, ahem, an erratic and unfortunate attempt at a New England accent. But despite his attachment to O'Donnell, there is a problem with Costner's role in the movie: he is too big a star for a far too underdeveloped role. O'Donnell is indeed a confidante of the Kennedy brothers, but that is as far as he goes; to cast a star as big as Costner in the role is distracting to the audience, which is unfortunate.

Rather, the film should have rightfully belonged — as it very nearly does — to the brothers Kennedy. Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp are standouts as Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and by failing to make Greenwood and Culp the film's centerpieces the filmmakers cost themselves that extra point of legitimacy.

Culp, as the "brilliant and ruthless" Robert Kennedy, brings a bright-eyed cunning to his brother's cabinet. Though he is sometimes reviled by all — including O'Donnell — for having such access to and influence over the president, he nonetheless proves his worth with his intelligence, his intensity and his ability to successfully negotiate compromise.

But it is the Golden Globe- and likely Oscar-nominated Bruce Greenwood who holds the film together, exactly what a president should do in a time of crisis. Greenwood is an understated Hamlet of a Kennedy, a dark prince of Camelot who is constantly grappling with the fact that the fate of the world is in his hands. The layers Greenwood adds to Kennedy are as thick as pea soup — early in the film, Kennedy questions his own ability to handle his cabinet, a sentiment the viewer remembers even while he makes his most critical decisions in front of a much more experienced staff.

By the film's end, Greenwood has convinced the audience that no matter what flaws he sees in himself, John F. Kennedy is the only person in Washington capable of effectively handling the situation.

In fact, Greenwood does such a tremendous job of portraying the president that you wish "Thirteen Days" would have come out before the 2000 presidential election.

The greatest success of the film is its claim — mildly ridiculous, yet somehow believable — that it is the "inside story" of the Kennedy cabinet during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ever wonder what it's like to be president on a bad day? Thirteen Days puts you there.

"Thirteen Days" should rank up there with Fail-Safe as one of the more accurate portrayals put to celluloid of how difficult the office of the president must be. Kennedy faces constant opposition and pressure from his joint chiefs-of-staff, yet his entire cabinet never once hesitates in turning to him for a decision, in putting their own lives in his hands.

You get a greater sense not only of how important it is for the president to surround himself with intelligent and knowledgeable people, but also an appreciation for the difficulty of the life-and-death decisions that come down only to him.

So in case Oliver Stone does decide to throw his directorial hat back into the presidential ring and make J.F.K. II: The Prequel, he should at least have an idea of where to look for Cast Member Number One.

And if he is looking for tips on how to spin a tight yarn about a nation in a tight spot, he could do much worse than Thirteen Days.

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