What's a smart director of a historical piece to do these days? Easy: Keep it simple. Philip Kaufman went that route with the recent "Quills," positing the Marquis de Sade (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush) as a visionary defender of free speech and his adversaries as little more than narrow-minded forces of repression. And there were no shades of gray in Roland Emmerich's "The Patriot": The British might as well have sprouted horns and carried pitch forks for their Revolutionary War battles with the Americans, who were all saints, of course.
Roger Donaldson, although employing far more subtleties than those aforementioned directors, takes a similar strategy with "Thirteen Days," a talky but often fascinating account of the machinations that led the United States to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union in October 1962. This long-winded film, which covers the same material as the praised 1973 TV drama "The Missiles of October," offers two classes of characters: There are the brave, brilliant Kennedys and their allies, and then there are the bad guys, particularly the hawkish military types eager to demonstrate their power at any cost to the human race.
Donaldson, whose "No Way Out" afforded Kevin Costner a major breakthrough 13 years ago, gives the somewhat faded leading man a chance to shine again as Kenny O'Donnell, the tough, wise special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. Costner, aside from a New England accent as broad as his ego, does a fine job as JFK's unerringly loyal right-hand man, willing to defend to the death the ideals of the Camelot crew.
It was a sensible move to put the actor in a reduced role (as did, coincidentally, Oliver Stone's "JFK"). Had Costner been chosen to play the president, his star power would have been a fatal distraction. We would have spent too much time agonizing over that uneven accent. The director, instead, filled that role with Bruce Greenwood, a relatively unsung actor with little or no resemblance to JFK. Greenwood ("Double Jeopardy") nevertheless gets the mannerisms and patterns of speech down pat, and so does Steven Culp as little brother Robert F. Kennedy. Despite the physical dissimilarities, it's tough not to have a flashback to television and magazine images of the Kennedys, especially during the black-and-white sequences that serve as transitions during the 145-minute movie.
Donaldson manages to elicit considerable suspense in retelling the fateful yet familiar events of the Cuban missile crisis. It begins when the Kennedy administration learns that Russian missiles, capable of obliterating much of the U.S., have been transported to Cuba. Gen. Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway) and other military honchos, burned by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, are looking for any excuse to launch air strikes against Fidel Castro, regardless of the horrific results. The solution, as crafted by the Kennedys, includes off-the-record negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and a risky blockade of Cuba.
In many respects, "Thirteen Days" is an all-talk, little-action, Big Issue epic, photographed rather conventionally, built on a linear narrative and absent any real surprises. It gets a little dull, in other words, watching a group of 40-ish, well-to-do white men, dressed in conservative suits and military uniforms, walking the halls of the White House and arguing over the fate of mankind. And we know the ending, of course. JFK saved the world, and screenwriter David Self doesn't stray from that line.
Despite its drawbacks, "Thirteen Days" is finely acted, and it is as historically accurate as dramatic license will allow.