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Stone Cold Warriors

Galloping into the holiday season with a cloud of dust and a hearty "Hi-yo, Silver," Thirteen Days evokes a thrilling yesteryear of beehive hairdos, afternoon editions, and open-top limousines—when being president of the United States actually meant something. The veteran director Roger Donaldson and young screenwriter David Self have risen above their previous work to fashion a tense and engrossing political thriller from the transcripts of tapes made in the secretly bugged White House offices where John F. Kennedy and associates managed the potential Armageddon known as the Cuban missile crisis.

Although Thirteen Days runs nearly two and a half hours, it cuts immediately to the chase—October 16, 1962—with reconnaissance photographs of Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba hand-delivered to the president (Bruce Greenwood). Trusty aide Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner) rushes from the warmth of his big Boston Irish family to the icy ramparts of the New Frontier: "I feel like we caught the Jap carrier steaming for Pearl Harbor" is his pithy summation. The Joint Chiefs argue for an immediate air strike to be followed by an invasion. Dredged up for advice, old Cold Warrior Dean Acheson (Len Cariou) agrees.

Thus, while figuring out how to confront the duplicitous Russians, JFK must simultaneously restrain his own military commanders. It's the suits against the brass as well as America versus the Communists. To avoid complicating this neat moral equation, Thirteen Days selectively obfuscates some extenuating facts. One is Kennedy's concern that Operation Mongoose, the administration's ongoing plot to terminate Fidel Castro in time for the midterm elections, remain secret; another is that CIA director John McCone had actually reported the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba some two months before.

Minding the missile gap: Culp, Greenwood, and Costner in Thirteen Days
photo: Courtesy of Ben Glass/New Line
Minding the missile gap: Culp, Greenwood, and Costner in Thirteen Days

Details

Thirteen Days
Directed by Roger Donaldson
Written by David Self, from The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow
A New Line release Opens December 25

Proof of Life
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Written by Tony Gilroy
A Warner Bros. release

Thirteen Days, which takes its title from Robert Kennedy's posthumously published account of the crisis, is pure existential drama. Played out largely around burnished wooden tables, the movie has aspects of high-level boardroom chicanery—but what corporate takeover can compare to this? (The week that JFK blockaded Cuba was a week, Norman Mailer later wrote, "when the world stood like a playing card on edge. . . . One looked at the buildings one passed and wondered if one was to see them again.") Going on television to invoke World War II to prepare the nation for World War III, Kennedy is shown as heroically cool and totally hands-on—the movie should only boost the polls that declare him the most popular of American presidents, surpassing even Ronald Reagan.

Greenwood's JFK and Steven Culp's Robert Kennedy have the appropriate body language, vocal inflections, and coiffures—as does Dylan Baker's secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. Villainy is provided by Olek Kupra's Lugosi-like Soviet envoy Andrey Gromyko and Kevin Conway's air force general Curtis LeMay, who openly taunts the president in his itchy eagerness to get "those red bastards." Heart, of course, is supplied by Costner. Thirteen Days puts the actor in brisk Bodyguard mode, but with the helpful dramatic crutch of an exotic accent. His hard-nosed op is nothing less than JFK's brain, stomach, and conscience—serving the quarterback in chief as a combination defensive lineman and cheerleader.

Costner's presence reinforces Thirteen Days as a sort of JFK prequel, while as the only real star in the wax museum, he provides a sort of friendly Forrest Gump effect. His Kenny is the fly on the wall who always sees what's really happening. He's the first to recognize that the Chiefs want war, the person the president dispatches to check on a potential back-channel overture, the only one who believes that Adlai Stevenson has the balls to stand up to the Russians at the UN. Vital to JFK's triangulation between hawks and doves, Stevenson (Michael Fairman) wryly calls himself a "coward" and reasonably proposes swapping the new Soviet missiles for obsolete U.S. rockets stationed in Turkey.

Although the Stevenson plan was ultimately employed, Camelot spinmeisters, including the president himself, wasted little time in casting him as an appeaser—one of the most horrific aspects of the missile crisis was that appearance was all. Given the nuclear-armed Soviet submarine fleet, missiles in Cuba did not appreciably change the balance of power—the Russians already had the capacity to reduce Washington to radioactive rubble. Moreover, despite the bogus "missile gap" that had propelled Kennedy to the presidency, America's nuclear capacity exceeded by tenfold that of the Soviets—perhaps the reason why the Russians never put their forces on military alert. (The movie downplays this for understandable dramatic reasons.)

The Chiefs, on the other hand, exceeded Kennedy's orders to ratchet up American forces to DefCon Two, or a single step below nuclear war—a posture that the enraged JFK worries will "look like an attempted coup." With macho pilots flying low over Cuba and their commanders ranting about the rules of engagement, the situation could have easily gone out of control. Indeed, it is difficult to watch Thirteen Days without superimposing the Dr. Strangelove scenario. McNamara facing off against some crazed admiral in the war room gives a second meaning to the crisis's most celebrated sound bite, "We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked."

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