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A Thrilling 'Thirteen Days'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2001


    'Thirteen Days' Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp star in "Thirteen Days." (New Line Cinema)
It might take a few moments of adjustment before you can settle in to "Thirteen Days," the movie about President Kennedy's agonizing dilemma during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

I mean, Kevin Costner -- who plays JFK's political adviser, Kenneth P. O'Donnell -- is talking in a Boston accent, for one thing. Plus, he's pacing the halls of the White House with President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp). And they're talking funny, too.

But those Boston brogues -- and the initial worry that we're trapped in a docudrama full of walking, talking look-alikes -- soon fade away.

Director Roger Donaldson's taut, understated thriller pulls you into a powerfully engaging situation -- when the Kennedys, their advisers and the entire world found themselves contemplating the distinct possibility of global nuclear war.

For a drama that's obliged to turn on ideas, memos, nuances and situation-room chatter (rather than the more visceral, visual fare of most Hollywood thrillers), "Thirteen Days" is tremendously effective.

David Self's screenplay, based on historical records and documents, White House tapes, memoirs and interviews with some of the players, feels like classic television theater at its best. And it's easy to accept these performers as the very real people they portray.

It's October 1962. And the Russians have outfitted Cuba with enough medium-range missiles to put the United States into a state of hysteria.

President Kennedy meets with his top Cabinet advisers, including national security adviser McGeorge Bundy (Frank Wood), Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker) and brother Bobby, to assess the big picture.

What emerges in "Thirteen Days" isn't the menace of the Russians; it's the political pressure that informs every decision. Of course, the future of America is at stake. But so is the integrity of Kennedy's decision-making power.

This is about good sense finding the perfect niche between pacifist concession and military overreaction. The president has to consolidate his liberal-influenced principles with the views of more hawkish advisers, such as Gen. Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich), Dean Acheson (Len Cariou) and Gen. Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway), who are pushing for immediate military action.

"The big red dog is digging in our back yard," LeMay says. "And we are justified in shooting him."

Seeking the advice of elder statesmen such as Acheson has its limitations, argues O'Donnell. Eventually, the buck stops with President Kennedy.

"There is no wise old man," O'Donnell says. "[Expletive], there's just us."

It should be noted that Costner's role as O'Donnell is greatly exaggerated; O'Donnell did not have the significant role the movie implies.

But the filmmakers retain the emotional truth of those terrifying days and the idea that the Cuban missile crisis was a war of public relations, in which craftily worded communiques, stern exchanges before the United Nations and other public signals became the weapons of choice. This was about who would blink first.

Well, we're not all speaking Russian now. So we know the eventual outcome of the movie. But the tension remains palpable nonetheless, as the fate of the world hangs on the collective good sense of a handful of men.

Can the Americans' collective wisdom prevail? Can they keep their red-white-and-blue bulldogs calm and persuade the Soviets to curb theirs? Like President Kennedy, director Donaldson (who made "No Way Out," another pretty good Washington-seat-of-power thriller) has found a perfect balance of often-opposing forces: between recorded history and the demands of plain old entertainment.

THIRTEEN DAYS (PG-13, 138 minutes) -- Contains emotional intensity, some offensive language.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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