The president was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the handsome Irishman perceived as a weakling by Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev. With the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 still hanging in the White House air like the scent of sizzling bacon, Kennedy was vulnerable. But Thirteen Days suggests that the real showdown was between Kennedy and his own Joint Chiefs of Staff who shared Kruschev's belief that Kennedy was "too liberal to fight." At the first sign that the U.S.S.R. is encroaching on American turf, the generals are itching for war. A reluctant Kennedy turns to his inner circle for support, including his brother, Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General.
Another major player on the Kennedy team is Kenny O' Donnell (Kevin Costner), Robert's former roommate at Harvard and now a political advisor to the president. There appears to be some question as to how significant a role the real O' Donnell played in the crisis, but he's present primarily to bear witness to the events for the audience. Through his eyes we see the backstage bickering between the Kennedy staff and the generals, the negotiations with the media to keep the crisis under wraps, and the fear in the eyes of the best and the brightest as they are confronted with the threat of World War III. And we see the Kennedys, not as icons or martyrs, but as flesh and blood human figures, sometimes confident, often doubtful.
Of course, we know how it all turned out. On October 22, 1962 in an address to the nation, President Kennedy went public with the crisis that brought the world, in his words, to the "abyss of destruction." He ordered a blockade of Cuba and promised that the U.S. would treat an attack from the island of Castro as an attack by the Soviet Union. Kennedy assured the Soviets that the U.S. would, indeed, pay any price and bear any burden by responding with its full power. These threats and some clever diplomacy averted World War III.
It's a tribute to the craftsmanship of the filmmakers that such old news can whip up a good deal of excitement and suspense. Director Roger Donaldson and writer David Self tell the story with a minimum of fuss. This straightforward unpretentious approach adds to the nostalgic glow of the piece.
Most of the actors appear to have been cast because of their physical resemblance to the real life figures they portray. In some cases, namely Dylan Baker's Robert McNamara and Michael Fairman's Adlai Stevenson, the resemblance is uncanny. Kevin Costner looks nothing like the real Kenny O' Donnell, and probably doesn't sound like him either. Playing a man who is a household name in no one's home but his own, Costner didn't need to adopt a Boston accent. Hearing him pronounce car as "cah" distracts from an otherwise sincere performance.
As the only "star" in the cast, Costner gets top billing, but commendably steps aside to let co-stars Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp take center stage. Many fine actors have let the Kennedy brothers get the best of them. Relying too heavily on the hair and the accent, they've let their characterizations fall prey to caricature. As John and Robert respectively, Greenwood and Culp do themselves proud, never hitting a false note as they bring these legendary statesmen to life with their intellect and charisma intact. Greenwood, in particular, is so good that it would do his performance a disservice to praise it with the usual cliches ("It has Oscar written all over it"). When critics speak of a "seamless" performance, this is what they're supposed to be describing.
A history lesson that will keep you awake, Thirteen Days is intelligent without being dull, exciting without being stupid, and perfect family entertainment without being insipid. Above all else, it is a tribute to the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert. At a time when we are only too familiar with their faults, some observers may question the reverential treatment they are given here. These aren't the spoiled rich kids of the tabloid headlines and the tell-all books, but men of intellect, compassion and courage who are wise in their knowledge that peace can be preserved without bloodshed. As the film ends, the camera follows their shadows looming large against the backdrop of the White House as if to suggest that, in another time, giants did, indeed, walk among us, and our world is diminished by their absence.
In these more cynical times, when the U.S. presidential election is a choice between the lesser of two evils and the outcome is known only after endless reports about "hanging chads," this positive approach to history is inspiring. The Kennedy brothers may not have been giants, but Thirteen Days makes a convincing case that they stood taller than most of our leaders today.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2001 Brian W. Fairbanks