Reviewed by Nick Nunziata
Directed by Roger (No Way Out, Species) Donaldson
Starring Kevin (Bull Durham, JFK) Costner, Bruce (Double Jeopardy, Rules of Engagement) Greenwood, Dylan (Happiness, The Cell) Walsh, Steven (Jason Goes to Hell, Nurse Betty) Culp
So many films are built around the OUTCOME of an event, and as a result some of the details leading up to that event are glossed over or treated as devices. When a film arrives where the outcome is a part of history that can’t be changed (unless the movie is U-571) those details make all the difference.
If it’s hard to tell an original and compelling story with the freedom of fiction, imagine telling a compelling story where all your cards are visible. Tough stuff. Not too tough for this crew though, as the resulting film is a very solid work that should capture a broad audience of fans of political dramas like “JFK” and “All the President’s Men” as well as people into the Tom Clancy products.
Starting off with some truly amazing photography of nuclear weapons being detonated from tests in the 60’s, the film immediately establishes the paranoid (but genuine) spectre overhead during the intense slice of time in which the Cuban Missile Crisis fell.
With the Soviet Union and America in a political tug-of-war, President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood, best known as the villainous husband in Double Jeopardy) is forced to make very tough decisions under pressure from an overtly military group of advisors that feel military force is the solution to near any problem. This is before Vietnam, remember.
In his corner are his brother Bobby (played to bulldog perfection by Steven Culp), and his special advisor Kenny O’Donnell (Costner). The trio are longtime friends, and are pretty much an island unto themselves with the old fashioned dogs of war filling the rest of the White House.
The heart of the story are these three men, and how their bond helped maintain the greatness and purity of that time (until a fateful day in November a year later, some would say) during one of the most scary times in history.
When Russian nuclear weapons are spotted in Cuba during routine photography runs by our B2’s, the government is forced into action. The timetable is so short, and the threat so imminent and CLOSE TO HOME that decisions must be made that potentially could have started a nuclear war in 1962. John F. Kennedy is certainly a controversial figure in history (glorified as an angel by some and looked at as an extremely flawed man by others), but by placing him and his crew in the middle of a thriller as the heroes it walks a line between history and entertainment that is more fulfilling because of the truth embedded within.
As the two weeks of tense negotiations progress, we see mistakes and victories and character arcs that lend a very epic feel to the film (which is a pretty breezy 145 minutes), and while Donaldson does an outstanding job of keeping a good balance of polished filmmaking technique and informative storytelling, the thing that makes this film a winner is the three men on the poster.
Kevin Costner has a very shady history with accents. As the Prince of Thieves, he was in over his head with his shifting Robin Hood accent. In J.F.K. He was thrown a life preserver by a monstrous supporting cast and Oliver Stone’s technique. Here, his Boston accent will no doubt cause some viewers to wince during the first three minutes of the movie. It’s not bad, per se, but it is very DELIBERATE. I’ve known some Massachusetts folks with similar accents, but coming out of Costner, it doesn’t ring entirely true. A funny thing happens, though. After a while, it becomes less of a worry. It may be because you have the Kennedy boys and their accents to help acclimate, but I think it’s more in part to the truly terrific performance Costner gives regardless of the accent.
The way he carries himself, the way his eyes shine, and the way his face is getting more character with age all help convey the character of Kenny O’Donnell. He’s the perfect foil to the brothers, one of them but also someone in awe of them. A man whose life is built around making sure their legacy grows, but also the only person on Earth who can lecture the president without repercussion. Costner delivers some of his best acting in this movie, and even though echoes of Jim Garrison (from JFK) may arise I still think he makes forward strides here. On the second viewing, I focused on the performance instead of the accent and was very impressed. I don’t think O’Donnell was quite as much a participant in the real events as portrayed here, but it makes for good drama.
Bruce Greenwood repelled me in Rules of Engagement and Double Jeopardy. He was an uptight, privileged snob who got away with everything. The kind of person I went out of my way to annoy in high school. I thought it was the actor I disliked, but after this I realize he just played his roles REALLY WELL in those less than stellar films. Here, he’s a John F. Kennedy I’d want to rule my country. While not a dead ringer in looks or intonation, he does an amazing job in being a man teetering between logic and the abyss. You see him fighting to be the right man for the job even though everyone around him seems hell-bent on making him the man who starts the war to end all wars. He’s tough, torn, and most importantly… Human. His performance is actually my favorite of the film, even though…
Steven Culp absolutely IS Robert Kennedy. From his appearance to his mannerisms to the way he seems to have a fire hotter than the sun powering him. It’s one of those performances that are pretty much impossible to beat. From now on, any time an actor portrays Robert Kennedy it’ll be his performance they are compared to.
This trio, when together… Is classic. Watching them behind closed doors, whether discussing the issue at hand or reminiscing makes this movie much more to me that “this year’s crackerjack political thriller”. They are an amazing group of characters and I’ll be honest when I say that the knowledge of what was to happen to these men over the following years (little things, like GUNSHOT WOUNDS) makes it even more powerful to spend this time with them during their greatest moments. They are the film for me.
Otherwise, there’s some great action featuring an intense confrontation in the skies as well as some neat political chess playing on the battlefield and (more importantly) across desks. A very successful marriage of elements makes 13 Days a great movie for an adult audience (younger folks will be bored), and a film that allows even some of the smaller characters great moments (the Robert MacNamara and Adlai Stevenson characters primarily).
8.9 out of 10
Behind every great book adaptation is a forgettable first try. — By Ryan Covey