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Stone Cold Warriors

Thirteen Days adds little to what is known about the missile crisis but subtracts quite a bit. The Cubans are barely a factor—although, according to Russian archival material published in 1997, Castro panicked and began agitating for a nuclear first strike. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, the man who blundered into the crisis and who, more than anyone else, found a way to blunder out, is totally invisible. I also regret the omission of the final LeMay outburst: When the Chiefs were informed Khrushchev had agreed to remove the missiles, the general pounded the table and bellowed, "It's the greatest defeat in our history! . . . We should invade today!" (McNamara remembered looking at JFK and noting that the shocked president was "stuttering in reply.")

Less comic than cautionary, Thirteen Days ends with the euphoric McNamara and McCone thinking about seizing the opportunity to "run the table" on Khrushchev in Vietnam. Did the successful resolution of the missile crisis pump up America for the disaster to come? The movie excludes Kennedy from this overconfidence. It was the actual O'Donnell, after all, who was most responsible for the unverifiable story—popularized by Oliver Stone, among others—that, once he was safely reelected in 1964, JFK planned to withdraw America totally from Vietnam.

Thirteen Days doesn't explain how the world came to the brink of nuclear war, only that it did . . . and that catastrophe was averted. But it is also a movie of its own moment. The TV docudrama Missiles of October was broadcast only four months after Richard Nixon's resignation and served a useful social purpose in rehabilitating the prestige of the American presidency. The timing of Thirteen Days is scarcely less uncanny, although the effect may not be so comforting—the film encourages the audience to ponder, if they dare, the spectacle of George W. Bush under pressure.

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

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Dubya may appear hopelessly inadequate, but the cool JFK exhibited on Day Nine of the missile crisis is nothing compared to the presence of mind with which Russell Crowe simultaneously bamboozles Russian tanks and Chechen insurgents to liberate a hostage and pull himself into an airborne chopper under rocket fire in the precredit sequence of Proof of Life.

Crowe's next assignment is to free David Morse, playing an idealistic American engineer abducted by the ski-masked narco-guerrillas of a pseudo Colombia code-named "Tecala." That the kidnapping occurs one scene after Morse's big quarrel with wife Meg Ryan adds a bit of psychological piquance to the otherwise mechanical proceedings. Crowe's character is a man of absolute faith and unblinking realism who explains to naïve Ryan and her obnoxious, hysterical sister-in-law (Pamela Reed) that the issue is not revolution but money. Taking hostages is a third-world business. As in American electoral politics, "the end of the Cold War changed everything."

Its nonsensical narrative complications fleshed out with lazy stereotypes (the locals are mainly nightclub fascists or crazed Communists; the scariest moment has Crowe replaced by some Tecalano jerk), Proof of Life derives its emotional coherence from generic models. It's Rambo with a split hero—Morse absorbing punishment and Crowe wreaking vengeance—as well as a Casablanca triangle with Crowe as Bogie. There's a key moment when the star kisses his pretty client and she swoons. To judge from the heat, their much publicized on-set romance could have been a desperate PR stunt to promote an otherwise undistinguished movie.

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