Thirteen Days is an adrenaline-charged retelling of the 1962 world crisis that pitted American leadership against the aggressive encroachment of the Soviet Union, which was stealthily placing nuclear-capable missiles with a 1,000 mile attack capability in Cuba. Cold war seemed to be escalating towards nuclear holocaust. Even the nation’s capital was in range of the missiles, which added a level of personal risk to the impersonal statistics of the millions of lives that could have been wiped out in short order.
The best written docudrama since The Insider, Thirteen Days (screenplay by David Self) sets an immediate tone of threat, with shots of missiles and mushroom clouds accompanied by a soundtrack of foreboding music–and that’s behind the main titles, before the story even begins. Based on tapes secretly made by the administration during the crisis, the film expertly and clearly lays out the internal political complexities, the conflicts, and the ever-compounding complications of the confrontation.
When American surveillance discovered the weapons and the related construction, the Kennedy administration went into high gear with three key inside players: President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), his brother Bobby (Steven Culp), and the President’s personal assistant and White House insider Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner). They are surrounded by other important players both from within the administration (McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Adlai Stevenson) and from the military. They seek advice, and most of what they’re given is hawkish, with the military in particular displaying a propensity to shoot first and talk later. The trouble with that scenario is that if the shooting started, there wouldn’t be a later, for surely the nuclear holocaust would have left an unrecognizable planet behind.
While he worked closely with his brother, the ultimate responsibility fell, of course, on the President, the Commander-in-Chief. Kennedy is shown here to have had a strong sense both of history (The Guns of August, the way that World War I began, is on his mind) and the importance of the lesson that times and technology and politics change; history will not always provide a fitting model for a new conflict. The Kennedys sought ways to avoid the impending conflict, beginning with McNamara’s suggestion of a Cuba blockade (labeled a "quarantine," since a blockade is an act of war).
As events unfold, the film manages to show how they handled the conflicts within their own team, including what the President called "redundant control" of the military, giving orders directly to the officers on the line to make sure the trigger-happy top brass weren’t countering White House policy decisions.The domestic complications of policy were compounded by the need to interpret mixed signals coming from the Soviets as well as the war of world opinion waged at the United Nations and in the press. Kennedy’s profound moral conviction that the use of force would have untenable consequences and his vigorous exercise of power in a variety of ways to gain control of the situation make for gripping drama. As each development in the crisis seems to resolve, yet another complication succeeds the last. The resolution, of course, is history–in less capable hands it might well have been the end of history.
For the most part, the performances are equal to the task of representing these characters from recent history and keeping them human. Costner’s Boston accent is a weakness, but a minor one–and it seems to fade as the film goes on. Aside from that, it’s his best work in years. Greenwood doesn’t quite capture the physical sense of power that Jack Kennedy exuded, but he does convey the profound weight of the office and the moral power that was necessary to stand firm on unpopular policy decisions. Culp rounds out the triumvirate capably.
Director Roger Donaldson intersperses the White House meetings with scenes of the ships at sea and planes in the air, with small bits of domestic drama which give proportion to the broader sweep of events, even with archival videotape of Walter Cronkite reporting the news on television. Donaldson occasionally phases out of color to black-and-white which adds something of a documentary/newsreel effect.
At its core, Thirteen Days is skillful storytelling, a story with the highest stakes imaginable and one that happens to be true. Fiction could not be more frightening, nor make for better cliffhanging entertainment.