Thirteen Days
Director: Roger Donaldson. Cast: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker, Michael Fairman, Henry Strozier, Bill Smitrovich, Madison Mason, Frank Wood, Kevin Conway, Charles Esten. Screenplay: 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).


Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days perfectly embodies a paradox unique to certain kinds of Hollywood films. Over and over, in its images of American flags and military force, its stately closeups of furrowed brows, its cursory but consistent "period" trappings, and its banally emphatic music and stock footage of mushroom clouds, Thirteen Days announces that its events Really Happened, and were Very Important. The primary goal of the film seems to be to alternately remind, for those old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, or to educate, for those young enough to be in peril of ignorance. As its instrument for conveying the plot, however, the film conjures up a patently implausible character, not exactly fictional but heavily fictionalized, and casts a major (if waning) star in the role—a star who, it shouldn't be forgotten, bankrolled the whole film. Typically for La-La Land, a movie that wants to say something about the real world is stuck for how to do it without making stuff up and casting distractingly famous people in key roles.

So is this a veritable recreation or a vanity project? Is the subject of Thirteen Days Kennedy, Cuba, or Kevin? That's a tough one to call, but it turns out that, at least in this case, no answer is needed, since the film is hardline mediocre no matter through which lens one evaluates it. To wit:

As Historical Drama: The only ace in the movie's sleeve is Bruce Greenwood's etching of John Kennedy, a subtle but hypnotically varied rendering of a man familiar to many, an instance of good acting making human, credible, and complicated someone who long ago seemed like a two-dimensional historical object. Greenwood's work, foregoing strict physical likeness for more intuitive resemblances, recalls Anthony Hopkins' tour-de-force in Nixon. By orchestrating in such careful measurements the intelligence, arrogance, and self-conscious enactments of "power" of these differently iconic presidents, both actors manage to become Kennedy and Nixon in a way that erases our memory of the "real thing." By contrast, Steven Culp as Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General in his brother's administration, looks more like his historical counterpart than Greenwood does, and yet seems appreciably falser as a stand-in.

Beyond this compelling characterization, though, the film never offers more than a dioramic reenactment of key events from the Crisis, both within the White House and among the ships and other craft conducting their Caribbean standoff. One familiar, almost inevitable shortcoming of Thirteen Days, given where and by whom it was made, is that Donaldson, Costner, and screenwriter David Self manage nothing so daring as an image of events in the Kremlin, or—think of it!—within Cuba itself (grainy aerial photos notwithstanding). The result is analogous to a film about checkers in which only the black pieces are on view. Hollywood, which, like our new president, may not have heard that the Cold War is over, still seems stalwartly resistant to showing us the color red.

Thirteen Days, then, does well enough as a cursory crash-course in the tense two weeks it chronicles, but like many a mainstream docudrama, it tends to remind or educate its viewers only about those people and events which the film itself cares to remember. At one point, Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), getting a head start on his notorious career in that office, admits that a radar center in which he is "stationed" has lost sight for several hours of a Russian ship and allowed it to pass the blockade. How'd that happen?, we wonder, but Costner & Co. don't want to tell us, even from their hindsight remove of almost four decades. It will hard for America, or American movies, either to teach or to learn anything new about history if it insists on simplifying the past into a series of American victories, enemy transgressions, and ostensibly minute slip-ups on our part that conveniently get swept under the carpet.

As Costner Vehicle: One need not know from textbooks or personal testimony that Costner's character, a presidential aide named Kenny O'Donnell, played nowhere near the role in the Cuban Missile Crisis that Thirteen Days proposes in its star-tailored plot, though plenty of vocal opposition has arisen along these lines. The revision of history is perfectly obvious from the film itself, without any external verification, because Costner's presence in his own scenes is so incredibly awkward and implausible. Much of the actor's role consists of lurking in the background of conversation scenes—between the Kennedy brothers or among larger groups of executive-branch and military counselors—in which he plays no significant part. Empty reaction shots, therefore, abound: Costner nodding, Costner glancing to the side, Costner glancing straight ahead (listening?). His ungiving face wears such a perpetual, faux-contemplative scowl, he seems less like the star of the movie than like the hawk-nosed granite statue by which you pass on your way into the Kennedy museum. Why hire a star, or "allow" a star to hire himself, and then give him nothing to do? Why hire a star who doesn't seem able to do much to begin with?

Costner's presence in a movie tends to carry more baggage than just a logy central performance: a terrible accent (his Boston inflections are as unsatisfying, we learn, as his JFK Louisiana drawl and his Robin Hood "English"), an absence of humor, a stacked deck against women. (After a chauvinistic, long-term tendency to cast as his female co-star quiet actresses like Sissy Spacek or Mary McDonnell, or simply inadequate ones like Jeanne Tripplehorn or Kelly Preston, Costner this time recruited a total unknown to play four short scenes as his wife, her name buried so far down in the credits as almost to defy discovery.)

I have an idea, then—maybe toss this fool actor and actually tell the story of which he keeps standing in the way? Not only is O'Donnell a frivolous ornament, impossible to take seriously—the final shot of him and the Kennedys walking as a silhouetted troika through a White House colonnade is the ultimate vanity shot—but the time gained from shucking old Kev could be spent on deepening the film's historical perception, even widening its range of participants. "But then," objects some petrified studio wag, "if you include foreign-speaking characters, and critique American policy equally with those of other nations . . . who in the ticket-buying public would even go?"

I would go, and so might those $30 million worth of folks who have already lined up to see Traffic. "American history" is not a phrase that intends to connote that history is the study of America alone, much less a selective survey of the U.S.A.'s suspiciously righteous involvement in complicated global debates. This review is not an apologia for Communist nuclear threats; it is a suggestion that nuclear threats are not produced by Communists alone, and not prevented without wise concessions on their "side" as well as ours. If Kevin wants lucrative overseas box-office, and I bet he cares about receipts more than Steven Soderbergh does, or if he just wants to make better movies, he and his colleagues simply must acknowledge that there is an overseas, and it is inhabited by real people with their own important stories. C


Awards:
Satellite Awards: Best Supporting Actor, Drama (Greenwood); Best Film Editing (Conrad Buff)

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