The History Place - Movie Review

Thirteen Days

By Fred Harvey
The History Place

This fast moving thriller reveals how incredibly close we all came to World War III back in October 1962 after President John F. Kennedy discovered the Soviet Union had installed nuclear missiles inside Cuba.

Thirteen Days, directed by Roger Donaldson, is told from the point of view of presidential aide Kenny O'Donnell, who is well played by Kevin Costner. Through his eyes we gain access to President Kennedy's inner-most circle during the whole crisis.

At first glance, the fake Bawsten (Boston) accents were a bit distracting, as they are in any Kennedy flick. People in Hollywood don't seem to realize that the Kennedys don't have a real Boston accent. They invented their own.

Anyway, JFK is probably one of the more difficult historical characters to portray, given the lingering impact of old film and TV clips ("Ask not what your country can do for you," etc.). Bruce Greenwood as President Kennedy is quite outstanding, wisely choosing to understate his Kennedyness while nicely showing us how cautious and reflective the President actually was throughout the crisis. Steven Culp as his younger brother Bobby is also fine.

The film pretty much follows the historical timeline of events, beginning with a high flying U-2 spy jet taking photos over Cuba uncovering missile bases under construction. The President must then decide how to respond to this major incursion by the Soviets in the Western Hemisphere, so near to the U.S.

The film's strongest point is that it clearly shows how even the slightest misjudgment by the U.S. or the Soviets during the crisis might have caused events to spiral out of control so that no one could prevent a nuclear holocaust. Amid the overwhelming stress and fatigue, President Kennedy must struggle to avoid making that one mistake which might be seen as an outright act of war by the Soviets.

Meanwhile, the President is under heavy pressure from his gung-ho military chiefs who want to shoot first and deal with the consequences later. They play by old-fashioned military rules of engagement, not realizing the rules are changing now from moment to moment.

One of the best scenes in the movie is a shout-down between Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (Dylan Baker) and a pompous Navy admiral in which McNamara forbids any unauthorized use of weapons. The admiral responds by boasting that the Navy has been conducting naval blockades since the days of John Paul Jones (the 1700s). McNamara is justifiably incredulous at his dangerously out-of-date mentality.

The excellent script by David Self was meticulously researched and is largely based on the secret tape recordings made inside the White House by President Kennedy. In a few instances, the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the tapes. There is also the expected dramatic embellishment to make this thing a marketable product.

The biggest leap of faith is the propping up of O'Donnell's importance to the President during the missile crisis. O'Donnell, one of the so-called 'Irish Mafia,' was only Kennedy's appointments secretary, not a National Security advisor as one might think from this film. Although he was a long-time aide and trusted political hand, he had no where near the influence that Costner's character has. But this is entirely forgivable, considering the necessity of a big role for superstar Costner (also a co-producer) or this wonderful historical film might never have been made.

Rated PG-13 for language.

Thirteen Days - Official Website
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