Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:25 - Released 12/25/00

I have mentioned the fact that Kevin Costner seems to repeat certain themes in his movies. He's done more baseball films than can be counted on one pitching hand, he's partial to overlong epics where he plays a hero who saves society from itself — it's certainly not hard to guess the man's passions. Now he adds another telling entry to his list of pet topics: John F. Kennedy. In Oliver Stone's JFK, Costner played New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison. In Roger Donaldson's intense retelling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Thirteen Days, Costner has moved up the ladder to the president's special assistant, Kenny O'Donnell. Although his performance here is not unlike that of JFK, he has exchanged Garrison's southern drawl for an exaggerated New England accent (he sounds more like Kennedy than Kennedy, or, for that matter, than Bruce Greenwood, who plays Kennedy), and while this is easily the most annoying aspect of the film, it is a minor irritation, and it doesn't take away from the thoroughly engrossing nature of the story.

Written by David Self, based on the book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside The White House During The Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, Donaldson's film suffers from a slow start which is arguably necessary to establish the numerous aides and other figures in the JFK administration, but after the first half hour or so, the ball begins rolling and doesn't stop. When a U-2 plane making a surveillance flight over Cuba detects Soviet nuclear missiles being placed there, it becomes clear that the U.S.S.R. is planning to establish a platform from which to threaten the United States. Knowing that it will only be a matter of days until the missiles are operational, the president's cabinet and joint chiefs engage in a tense argument over whether to proceed diplomatically (which would allow time for the missile sites to be completed), or launch air strikes, or invade, which would most likely force the Soviet Union to attack NATO allies in Europe, effectively placing the world's two predominant superpowers in a state of war.

Most of the film revolves around Kennedy (Greenwood), his brother, Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp, who also played Bobby Kennedy in the 1996 TV movie Norma Jean & Marilyn), and O'Donnell (Costner), who alternate between the tense meetings in the situations room with the White House staff and the no less tense private meetings in the oval office among the three of them, trying to decide how to avoid provoking a nuclear confrontation. With preserving the peace foremost in their minds, the three men buck against the hawkish recommendations of their military advisors and attempt to come up with a diplomatic solution even though the time until the missiles are ready to fire is ticking away.

Every step along the minefield that Kennedy and his staff were forced to negotiate is presented here, interspersed with high-powered action sequences involving the increasing reconnoissance flights and ships at sea, and the various political confrontations between the U.S. and Soviet ambassadors. Donaldson does an astounding job orchestrating the story, alternating between meetings, action, and O'Donnell's interior family moments, and between color and black & white film, with some rapid-fire sequences where orders are given, carried out, and rescinded within minutes. Costner performs admirably; the fact that he did not direct this film (he is one of its 11 co-producers) tends to keep his penchant for melodrama in check. Although the script tends to idolize the Kennedys a bit, Greenwood and Culp are truthful and charismatic, showing their fear and apprehension at dealing with this situation of whose gravity they are all too aware. The large supporting cast is greatly effective, including Dylan Baker as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Henry Strozier as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Michael Fairman as U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson, delivering the famous "Hell freezes over" quip. Thirteen Days is a gripping history lesson and a good character study, but also just a well-cast, well-executed film. *****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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