Film Score: Trevor Jones Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp and Dylan Baker
Patton, George C. Scott as the title character makes a remark at the end of World War Two that the U.S. military should simply turn their weapons on the Russians and commence with a battle that was going to come eventually. Though he was fired for saying that then, many in the military thought the same way, a feeling that precipitated the Cold War in the fifties. By nineteen sixty the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned about was itching for a war, but disappointed that Kennedy was in the White House rather than Nixon. Still, they made the effort, promising Kennedy that the Bay of Pigs operation would be a cakewalk. It wasn’t and, as a result, Kennedy began to think seriously about ending the Cold War by attempting to simply opt out. This, of course, was an anathema to the military and intelligence communities and so they conspired to have him killed. This is the theory proposed by the best book I’ve ever read on the assassination, JFK and the Unspeakable by James W. Douglass.
One of the events that no doubt shaped his desire to quit the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. It’s this test of character for the president that is chronicled brilliantly in Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days. Taking the title from Robert F. Kennedy’s memoirs about the crisis, the film looks at the events from the viewpoint of Kenny O’Donnell, special assistant to the president. It begins with intelligence photos showing that the Russians were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. This, of course, was completely unacceptable to the United States, and the ensuing test of wills between the two governments nearly led to the onset of World War Three, a war the world would never have recovered from. The only thing that stopped it was the firm desire of JFK to solve the crisis without using the military option, an option every military officer on his staff was urging him to use. Far from being weak, Kennedy’s determination proved that he deserves to be mentioned alongside the greatest leaders in our history.
Kevin Costner plays Kenny O’Donnell, a good friend of Bobby Kennedy and JFK’s former campaign advisor. Costner has never had an easy time with accents, and his Boston accent is pretty weak at times, but he still does a very credible job conveying the angst of the crisis, continuing to think about Kennedy’s political career as part of the overall picture. The best casting, however, is in the two Kennedys. Bruce Greenwood is tremendous as JFK, not quite a look-alike but conveying his essence it a great way. Steven Culp is the best of the three, completely immersing himself in RFK’s mannerisms and speech patterns. The three of them together are tremendous to watch and it feels like the most realistic representation of these great men on film. The two standout supporting actors are Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara and Michael Fairman as Adlai Stevenson.
Roger Donaldson is an Australian director who has done some interesting work on films like The Bounty and Cocktail, and worked with Costner previously on No Way Out. His style here is quite good, especially in the transitions when he goes to black and white to give a feel of the media from the time, then gradually saturates with color into the dramatic action. It’s a nice touch. The screenplay was based on the book The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. Screenwriter David Self penned the script and later went on to write Road to Perdition and the remake of The Wolfman. One fascinating aspect of the story is Kennedy having read the new book by Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, about the beginning of the First World War and how that shaped his view of events as they unfolded. Thirteen Days might not be for everyone but history buffs, and especially those interested in the presidency of John F. Kennedy, should find the film compelling. I know I certainly did.