'Thirteen Days': Halting Armageddon

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2001

If you lived through them, chances are you'll never forget the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis. I remember cowering before my bedroom window, transfixed by an image in the imagination: a radiant and weirdly beautiful mushroom cloud erupting over Chicago in majestic blasphemy, its shock wave still 30 seconds away before, out in the suburbs, I would be obliterated, then incinerated, then atomized and finally folded, spindled and vaporized.

But -- I hate to give away a surprise ending -- the world didn't end in 1962, and the film "Thirteen Days" does a pretty good job of explaining why.

It's no kind of great film, and sometimes it's a little ridiculous. When Adlai Stevenson (portrayed as the comical house weenie at the Kennedy frat party) finally stands up to the Russkies in the United Nations -- "I'm prepared to wait until Hell freezes over, Mr. Ambassador!" -- it is supposed to play like Rocky's KO of Apollo Creed. Everybody back in the war room cheers and yelps and jumps. Did this really happen? Possibly, maybe even probably. But somehow the moment feels false and cheap and more connected to showbiz formulas of redemptive reversal than to anything real.

Generally, though, the movie skips the hysterics and concentrates on a certain species of American narrative, derived from "Dragnet" and, before that, Dashiell Hammett: clipped, brisk, rigidly controlled, slightly stylized but not overstylized. Its title is also its structure: It takes you through the 13 big ones one at a time, from start to finish, snapping around the world, from the crisis room in the White House to JFK's office to the cockpit of a camera-packing Crusader jet hurtling over the Red missile sites through a dangerous sleet of commie ack-ack to the bridges of the blockading men o' war.

Of course, all this is punctuated by that movie trope of escalating global tension, the dit-dit-dash of a telegraphic subtitle reading something like: "USS Arleigh Burke, 233 nautical miles off Cuba, 1133 Hrs Zulu." Dit-da-dit, dash-da-dit, it's fast fast fast and believable believable believable and ritualistic ritualistic ritualistic.

You can laugh at this, but I never will, because I once wrote a dit-da-dit-dit book starring the end of the world in fire, and made a hatful of dough from it. As I proved and this movie proves, dit-da-dit-dit always gets 'em squirming in the front row.

Anyhow, the vantage point is that of JFK's close adviser, Kenny O'Donnell, played by Kevin Costner (who also co-produced and was presumably the guy who got the project greenlighted by New Line). O'Donnell, it says in David Self's script, was a brusque political pro, an expert at chewing people out and protecting the boss's best interests. In the movie's first seconds, when you hear Costner's blatant Boston accent, your heart sinks, and you think, "Oh, God, three hours of Kevin Costner doing a bad Vaughn Meader impression."

But let me, er, say this about that: You get used to Costner right away. Before he became a star, he was an actor, however briefly, and in this movie he's trying desperately to regain his actor's reputation, a crusade that's generally successful. It's not a vain, hammy performance, and he doesn't seem to hog the camera or get the best lines. He comes across as a very tough guy, a bully and a brute in service to his lord and master. And when you see that a guy this willing to wrestle anybody on any floor in any gym in the world is scared, you know the stakes are high.

And they were: Our U-2s snapped photos of Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba, in violation of treaties and our own public policies. We raised a stink, and ultimately erected a naval blockade by which we turned back Russian ships bringing more of the weapons to the island. Meanwhile, even as he struck macho poses for the cameras and relied on his oratorical brilliance, Kennedy maneuvered for time and leverage in a number of backstage arenas, ultimately reaching an agreement that kept the silo hatches shut and the big bombers on their runways in Omaha and Smolensk.

Kids who have only heard vaguely of these days will probably get with the film right away and it won't do them a bit of harm; the little buggers should know why they're still alive to invent dot-coms and drive Porsches. They won't have to fight the ghosts who, unbidden, hop through their fathers' and mothers' brains.

For us geezers, growing used to the movie will take a bit of time. At first I felt as though I was in some kind of hideous waxworks of Disney animatronic figures gone berserk, with such lesser lights as Dylan Baker and Bill Smitrovich pretending to be actual historical grown-ups like Robert McNamara and Maxwell Taylor; Michael Fairman somewhat loopy as Stevenson; and Kevin Conway chewing a whole pig's worth of Virginia ham as the movie's bete noire, Gen. Curtis LeMay, whose very eyebrows, wild and curly bosques beyond discipline, signify untrammeled aggression.

But what saves the film are two central performances -- Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy and Steven Culp as Robert F. Kennedy -- and director Roger Donaldson's insistence on letting the story tell itself, quickly and for the most part without flamboyant overdramatization.

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