Some of you may already be groaning at the idea of yet another Costner flick about Kennedy. Believe me, I was one of the groaners when I first heard about Thirteen Days, and was prepared to dish out some lame tagline like, "Not nearly half as good as 28 Days." But having sat through this historical drama about the two weeks in 1962 that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, I have to admit that this is a solid political drama full of tension and highlighted by some great performances.
Ironically (or expectedly, depending on your personal opinions), Costner's performance is the least striking of the three stars. His shot at a New England accent ventures into such Mayor Quimby parody at times, that viewers can't help but giggle. In fact, when he first opens his mouth to reprimand his son at the breakfast table, it's hard to tell if he is seriously angry, or just making fun of the Kennedys' often-mimicked style of talking. The audience I screened the movie with laughed at first, then quieted down when it became fully apparent that this was the real deal: Costner was going to talk like this for the rest of the film.
It's important to note, however, that Costner's character is not exactly the focus of Thirteen Days, and his role in the movie is quite a brilliant one: to act as the objective fly-on-the-wall through which the audience relates to John and Robert Kennedy. As Kenny O'Donnell, a special advisor to the President, his purpose is to bounce ideas off Kennedy, and as a cinematic tool, he works as being the Everyman we sympathize with. Had he been written out, we would have been left with only the Kennedys, and such a story would have been more difficult to relate to and more biased--"the Kennedy version" of the Cuban Missile Crisis, lacking any objectivity whatsoever.
In such a supportive context, Costner's performance is quite acceptable. Moreover, it serves to round out a movie that is already spearheaded by some great acting: Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp are excellent as John and Robert Kennedy, respectively. Both portray their now legendary historical figures as smart but fallible men saddled with a great burden. Their reactions are believable, and most importantly, very human.
The quick rundown of the crisis goes something like this: Russia starts stockpiling nuclear missiles in Cuba. The United States can either bomb the missiles before they are armed, risking an outright confrontation with the Soviets, or they can sit back and wait, an alternative that would delay an immediate confrontation, but put America under nuclear threat in the future. The central theme of Thirteen Days, then, is how the administration walks a very fine line between war and peace in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.
All of this makes for some very compelling drama that truly brings history to life. Unfortunately, the action occasionally deteriorates into one-sided melodrama: the military officials who advise Kennedy to strike first, strike fast, and strike hard are all depicted as war-hungry maniacs rather than concerned patriots; one scene in which an official rattles off a typical "I'm ordering you to stand down!" speech comes off like a weak Crimson Tide; and a subplot about Adlai Stevenson and sudden old-man redemption is corny and more annoyingly Hollywood than anything else the movie has to offer.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity, though, is the depiction of the American people during this crisis. Once the events go public, we see a few scenes of John Q. Public, but none of them really capture the tension that was spreading across the country at the time. Many people who are old enough to remember these events claim that they truly thought it was the end of the world, and this fear of armageddon is not fully conveyed in the film. Costner makes a surprisingly heartfelt speech about the sun rising on another day and life going on, but even this is not enough to capture the panic of a full scale nuclear holocaust.
The strength of Thirteen Days lies in the ernest performances of its actors and its ability to unfold an historical turning point in a very entertaining, dramatic way. I urge anyone disillusioned by Costner's high profile bombs or burdened with JFK-inspired preconceptions to put aside any prejudice and see this movie. It's definitely worth your two hours, and is easily amongst the year's top ten films.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)