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.
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.”
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.
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.