THIRTEEN DAYS (2000) 7/10

Cuban heels
director: Roger Donaldson
screenplay: David Self (based on book The Kennedy Tapes, edited by E R May and P D Zelikow)
cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
stars: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker
USA 2000; 145m

Thirteen Days is a surprisingly sober dramatisation of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, mercifully avoiding—at least until the last quarter hour—this kind of material’s usual patriotic flag-waving. It’s a thoroughly careful, mature production, lifted out of the ordinary by the spot-on pair of performances by Greenwood and Culp as John F and Bobby Kennedy. Though Costner gets top billing as their trusted advisor Kenny O’Donnell, he’s essentially a peripheral figure, looking on as the President and Attorney General wrestle with their hawkish military chiefs, their nervy government colleagues and, trickiest of all, their own consciences.

Director Donaldson recognises Greenwood and Culp as his trump cards, wisely concentrating on their White House machinations, breaking things up with an occasional burst of air/sea action. He resists the temptation to fancy things up on the visual side, apart from a few distracting transitions between monochrome and colour. He crafts a smooth technical package around a script that presents the historical events with, for the most part, straightforward clarity, sustaining tension over the long running time even though the audiences know the outcome in advance. But the tight focus means many fascinating characters and aspects of the story remain undeveloped – First Lady Jackie Kennedy pops up for about five seconds at the start, and there’s no sign at all of either Bobby’s family or, more bafflingly, Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

It’s also fair comment to regret the one-sidedness of the movie, with little attempt made to humanise or explain the Russian/Cuban view of the situation, apart from one slightly awkward moment when Costner unexpectedly finds himself in an ante-room with a female Soviet apparatchik. The camera zooms in clumsily on her red-star badge, and she’s plainly a bag of nerves, but the scene ends before it can explore this promising avenue further. Then again, by making the Soviets’ movements inscrutably mysterious—a combination of military strategy and blundering incompetence—from what we can see the movie more effectively conveys the state of mind of the American side at this fractious point in history, which is all it really wants to do. An even-handed exploration of the enemy would require an even lengthier running time.

As it is, the story barrels along at a fair rate without ever slipping over into melodrama, though the breakfast-table scene towards the end—where an exhausted Costner breaks down in front of his wife and five kids—is a rare moment of sentimental indulgence. The closing scene, however, is much more in keeping with the classy maturity of what’s gone before, with first the Kennedys, then their shadows, fading from view, the President’s defiant words echoing boldly into the darkness.

Neil Young
14th March, 2001