Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fear The Government Of Yore: Thirteen Days

The Good: Documents well the history, Good acting
The Bad: Little character development, Awkward pacing, Lack of consequences at the end.
The Basics: Despite Kevin Costner's excellent portrayal of Kenny O'Donnell, Thirteen Days fails to convincingly portray the Cuban Missile Crisis.

When Thirteen Days came out, it was right around the time George W. Bush was being considered for the job. When one of my friends saw the film, her opinion was. "I hope nothing like that ever happens if he becomes president, because we would all be dead." Having now seen Thirteen Days, I'm convinced as well that had anything like the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred during the Bush Administration, the United States of America would have initiated World War 3.

Thirteen Days opens with a U.S. spy plane flying over Cuba and photographing medium-range nuclear missiles being transported on the island. When news of this reaches President Kennedy, he and his brother are aided in preventing World War Three with the Soviet Union by Kenny O'Donnell, the president's special assistant. What follows is a chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union where the topic of the missile deployment forces each side to make their moves. As the U.S. gets closer and closer to war, the military applies pressure on Kennedy to go to war while cooler - and more intelligent - heads prevail on John F. Kennedy for a diplomatic solution.

One of the nice things about Thirteen Days is that it illustrates well the power of the intellect over military might. In Thirteen Days, the best minds in the nation are put in a room together and told to come up with solutions and they do. The brothers Kennedy and O'Donnell make for compelling intellectual characters who innovate when they need to.

John F. Kennedy is painted as a man thrust into responsibilities he never anticipated or wanted and is getting an ulcer as a result. Robert Kennedy is painted as an intellectual savior of the nation and watching Thirteen Days, it is impossible to not feel sorry for the assassination of this leader. He could have done amazing things and this film makes it clear that he had the mettle for it.

But the surprise character many of us do not know about from our history classes is Kenny O'Donnell. O'Donnell is a nice balance to the Kennedy's, offering practical more emotional - instinct-driven - opinions and theories. Moreover, his handling of military officers is a masterful work of political intelligence. By preventing such things as information about U.S. planes being shot at, he preempts the rules of engagement and prevents war from being a tactical necessity.

Unfortunately, the characters are caught mid-stream. If one hasn't taken US history courses or lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the characters make little sense. That is, the film takes place while the Kennedy Administration is in progress, so their historical significance up to the Cuban Missile Crisis is not explored or even alluded to in a way that is significant.

Fortunately, the acting makes up for it. In some ways. Kevin Costner leads the cast as O'Donnell. He makes O'Donnell human in ways that many of the other characters are not. They tend to be monolithic, with Bill Smitrovich portraying the Joint Chief of Staff as a hard military man and Steven Culp as Robert Kennedy with almost no emotion. That is, Costner plays a more well rounded character with actual depth while the others play their characters as archetypes, as symbols more than viable individuals.

So, often it becomes difficult to tell if the acting is good for the writing or the writing is simply a study in caricatures as opposed to individuals. Notably, Bruce Greenwood plays John F. Kennedy with mixed convincibility. Some moments, he seems exactly like Kennedy does in historical broadcasts both televised and radio. But never does Greenwood get quite to the point of being the clever politician who stumped Nixon in the debates.

Unfortunately, that's indicative of the film. First, the tension never actually seems high. We all know how the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, so it's no surprise that we're not all nuked. But the film never captures the entire dread potential of nuclear war.

As well, the film never seems to get going. It has an excruciatingly slow build-up. If one were to walk in after the first half hour, they would not have lost any of the attempt to create a mood.

Finally, the lasting consequences of the incident are lacking from the film. The red telephone between the U.S. and the USSR is not brought in to conclude the film.

Add to that the direction uses very annoying black and white moments where the color simply disappears. There's no sensibility to the changes between color and black and white and it serves only to confuse the film's purpose.

A film on the Cuban Missile Crisis that doesn't grab the viewer in the first few minutes is death for the film; it's a major crisis in U.S. history that was tense for all those involved and if it fails to evoke a mood, then it fails. Ultimately, Thirteen Days fails to evoke a tense mood instead miring itself in pointless details like an encounter between Kenny O'Donnell and Jackie Kennedy, and ultimately fails as a film.

For other works with Bruce Greenwood, check out:
Super 8
Star Trek


For other films, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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