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Donaldson Makes Ego-Free Movie

(c) The Cedartown Standard

January 23, 2001

By Robert W. Butler

Most movies – the good ones, anyway – are an act of hubris.

Someone in a creative capacity – director, actor, writer, producer or some combination of them – in effect grabs us by our collective lapels, shakes us until our teeth rattle and, like a 5-year-old demanding attention, yowls, "Look what I can do!"

The odd thing about the Cuban missile crisis movie "Thirteen Days" is that it works quite nicely without any such display of self. It's as close to an ego-free movie as we've seen, yet this lack of personality doesn't hurt it.

Just the opposite. This historical re-creation (or documentation, if you like) succeeds largely because it seems so, well, real. Enacted mostly by journeyman actors whose faces we recognize but whose names escape us, and presented with matter-of-factness that seems an antidote to the usual Hollywood manipulation. "Thirteen Days' is nail-biter that works even though we already know how it will end.

Ultimately what this film does is depict how the end of the world was narrowly avoided in 1962 after U.S. intelligence spotted Soviet offensive missiles being installed in Castro's Cuba. Obviously, World War III didn't happen, but so nicely does director Roger Donaldson's movie suck us in that by the end we all give a huge, wheezy sigh of relief. Whew, that was a close one.

Not even the presence of Kevin Costner, the one player everyone in the audience will know by face and name, shatters the illusion. Costner plays Kenny O'Donnell, special assistant to President Kennedy. He's less an active participant in all this than the fly on the wall through whose eyes we experience the frantic workings of Kennedy inner circle as they try to circumvent disaster. Even the New England accent Costner affects works – once you get used to it.

The real workhorses of the film are Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp as John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Greenwood is particularly effective – without actually doing a JFK imitation; he uncannily suggests the look, movements and sound of the late president without getting hung up on those elements, and he injects into the characterization the chronic physical discomfort the canny politician was careful to conceal from the electorate.

Culp's Bobby isn't quite as dead-on accurate, but he nails that curious aspect of the two Kennedy siblings, the sense that Jack and Bobby somehow completed each other – yin and yang, id and ego.

The rest of the performances are solid but not particularly showy, although you have to love Kevin Conway's turn as the saber-rattling Gen. Curtis LeMay. The dyed-in-the-wool Kennedy hater, like "Dr. Strangelove's" Buck Turgidson, practically salivates at the thought of dumping a big fat nuclear payload on the Commies.

I'm in no position to comment on the accuracy of David Self's screenplay, which must have demanded much compression and abridgment of the historic timeline. But it sure feels right.

In any case, it suggests that during this moment in our history two wars were being waged. The first was against the Russians and Cubans, who go virtually unseen in "Thirteen Days." The second, and equally dangerous, war was the Kennedys' holding action against the head of the U.S. military, who were smarting from their humiliating Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba a year earlier and who were dying for an opportunity for a second chance.

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