Thirteen Days (2000): United States – directed by Roger Donaldson
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains language and some intense war room scenarios
It is a pity that Thirteen Days is not a better film, for the subject matter is exceedingly fascinating. It is based on the true story of how the White House had to deal with a threat closer and more dangerous than any they had experienced before, but some of the technical aspects of the production bog down the story and prevent the film from having the power that it should. Some of the intensity of the situation and the enormous impact the players’ decisions had is worthy of a better treatment than afforded here.
Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) is the President’s top aide in 1962. John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) is in the White House, and Kenny and his brother Bobby (Steven Culp) are his most trusted advisers. It is the height of the Cold War, and direct conflict with Russia is a constant worry. Then a U2 pilot makes a run of the recently Communist Cuba and discovers something frightening: missile silos that ought not be there.
Kenny jumps into action, bringing the President into a whirlwind of information that will change the course of the country. The events that play out over the next thirteen days (as explained by the title) are of such import that it is difficult to fathom. Various meetings are called with Kennedy’s cabinet, but no information is made public.
Communication with Soviet Russia is difficult, and this lack of communication is a major theme in the film. Broad gestures are interpreted as narrowly as possible in an attempt to discern intention. The United Nations is little help, until Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman) brings his considerable amount of experience to the table. The jostle back and forth between bluff and threat continues until the countries are nearly at a terrifying point of no return.
The story, for some, may lack suspense because everyone knows the world did not end in 1962. But Thirteen Days is less about the potential consequences of the crisis, and more about the specific role that leadership takes in time of dire need. Kennedy here struggles with the same problems that Henry V faced in Henry V [review here]. He has to weigh a great number of factors, not the least of which is the safety of millions of Americans. He has cabinet members to please and take advice from, past leaders with wisdom he ought not ignore. He has his closest advisers and friends to consider, those he trusts the most. His is the most difficult role, and the gravity of the situation is captured well in Thirteen Days. The weight of having 80 million lives in his hands is overpowering, and Greenwood does a fine job showing how the President had to wrestle with every possible outcome before making any decisions.
In spite of the magnitude of the situation, the movie does not adequately capture the enormity of the choices the leaders make. Technical problems prevent the film from having as much power as it should, though its faults do not entirely sink the movie. The problems start as soon as Costner opens his mouth. His accent is bizarre and off-putting. It wasn’t until later in the film that I realized he was supposed to be a Massachusetts native. The on-again off-again nature of his speech left me wondering if he was from the deep South or the North East or somewhere in between. Any scenes involving him or his large family (he had a strong Catholic background) are not as effective as they might have been had he been more believable. And when the weight of the world lies on the shoulders of the President, why make his top aide the primary character? Perhaps it had to do with an A-lister being in the cast but not looking like John Kennedy.
Another problem lies in the dialogue, so O’Donnell’s speaking patterns are not entirely Costner’s fault. Many scenes are stilted and over-dialogued, with words that few actual people would use in similar situations. Certain segments, primarily those involving meetings with the cabinet, are staged more like a theatrical play, lending an overly dramatic and stagy feel to the otherwise tense situations. Pacing also presents a problem for director Roger Donaldson. The film is nearly two and a half hours long, and feels the need to include every key situation in the crisis. It also feels like it should have an emotional human core and therefore spends some time with O’Donnell’s family, but this is perfunctory and generally ineffective.
With some tightening and some better script writing and dialogue coaching, Thirteen Days could have been a superior motion picture. As it stands there are a great number of themes to appreciate and ponder, but some oppressive faults that prevent it from having its full effect. Fans of historical dramas would do well to seek it out, while fans of other genres would be better served watching a pair of shorter films.