I don't know about you, but whenever I hear Kevin Costner is coming out with another two-hour-plus epic drama, I have a Pavlovian reaction of raging skepticism. After all, this man was the driving force behind "Waterworld" and "The Postman," not to mention the lengthy, maudlin romances "For the Love of the Game" and "Message In a Bottle."
So I admit I went in to "Thirteen Days" -- not only another Costner epic but another Costner revisionist history epic centering around John F. Kennedy -- expecting to cringe my way through it and subconsciously (?) looking for gaffes.
At first there were signs the film might live down to my expectations, like the title sequence's generically ominous stock footage of mushroom clouds and Costner's awk-cent, which begins as more Elmer Fudd than Kennedy compound before he eases into a smooth vocal rhythm. But within 10 minutes I was completely wrapped up in this fly-on-the-wall, pressure-cooker dramatization of what went down at the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I label the film revisionist because like "JFK," it features Costner as a historical footnote character whose role in events that shaped our nation is seemingly augmented to serve the dramatic purposes of the story.
That character is Kenny O'Donnell, a life-long Kennedy insider who served as a presidential adviser during the Camelot years. But accepting the concept that this man has substantial influence on the President (reporters did call him "the third brother") opens the door to an absorbing, tense portrayal of the agitated situation room infighting and tenuous diplomacy that arose as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear conflict.
In a lead role that is essentially a window to the actions of the supporting players, Costner does an impressive, precision job of turning up and down the volume of his screen presence based on what the Kennedys are doing in any particular scene.
When he's alone with John F. (Bruce Greenwood, "Double Jeopardy") and/or Attorney General Robert (Steven Culp), O'Donnell feels free to speak his mind, suggesting courses of action, pointing out fallacies in the President's thinking or helping him sidestep attempted blindsides by his malcontented military advisers. He's also the President's bulldog, enforcing his will in phone calls to congressmen or stepping up to confront a four-star general who gets belligerent with his Commander in Chief.
But during meetings with the Cabinet or the Joint Chiefs, Costner shrinks to the side, almost blending in with the wallpaper while subtly inferring O'Donnell's frustration with where his influence ends.
Such meetings are rife with tension that builds exponentially from the early scenes, in which U2 spy plane photos first reveal the presence of missiles 90 miles off the Florida coast, through to the most heated moments as the hawks in the administration demand air strikes -- and an invasion of Cuba while they're at it.
Director Roger Donaldson has a great command of the narrative, going out of his way to find fresh approaches for bringing trepidation to a story with an outcome that every audience member knows going in. Example: O'Donnell and Bobby Kennedy pause as they are driven past the Soviet embassy in one scene and take note of the billowing chimneys and the smell of burning documents. "They think we're going to war," Bobby realizes.
Donaldson amplifies several familiar historical moments by editing them together with scenes inside the Oval Office as the events unfold. For instance, Jack, Bobby and Kenny nervously watch on television as UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson reveals the spy photos to the world then faces down the Soviet representative, demanding "Do you have missiles in Cuba? Yes or no? Don't wait for the translation! Yes or no!"
The director also ads to the crescendo by cutting away to short, illustrative scenes of the missiles being installed, of Russian ships threatening to run the US Navy blockade and of a seat-gripping ride-along aboard an Air Force fighter that goes in low for a few more pictures and almost gets shot down -- something that most certainly would have escalated the showdown beyond the point of no return.
But "Thirteen Days" may be at its best during its private moments between O'Donnell and the Kennedys. The friendship they share is portrayed so strongly there's never a question of the film's credibility while the story plays out.
Afterwards, a few nagging reservations arise. Greenwood is a good choice to play JFK, but he's a little short on the Kennedy charisma. (Culp, on the other hand, plays Bobby with an absolutely astonishing degree of accuracy and remarkable depth.) Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's Vice President, is conspicuously absent from all but one scene of the film (he has only a single line of dialogue). And the picture can't quite escape the feeling that it's a glorified TV movie -- albeit a really, really good TV movie.
However, there's no denying that "Thirteen Days" transports the audience not only into the era (the production design is amazing) or the location (the film's White House truly feels like a seat of power), but into the thick of the Kennedy inner circle. It faithfully portrays their spirit and the atmosphere -- if not the absolute facts -- of the most disquieting two weeks the world has ever known.