Thirteen Days (The Cornfield #49)

We just passed the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which will serve as pretext for re-printing a 2000 review of a movie I found particularly annoying.

I think I’ll stick with The Missiles of October. That 1974 TV production (shot on video, if memory serves), starring William Devane as John F. Kennedy and Martin Sheen as Bobby Kennedy, brought the Cuban missile crisis to vivid life. It did so by easing up on the melodrama and leaning on facts. What a concept: that a series of conversations among men in suits could make for utterly gripping drama.

Something about the TV-ness of The Missiles of October, the tight focus of the small screen, the emphasis on talking heads in close-up, added to its impact. Now we have Thirteen Days, which blows the whole thing up, so to speak. This film covers the same material, but filtered through the perspective of Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), who was present at the innermost heart of that suspenseful fortnight in October 1962.

The generally solid Roger Donaldson directs a script by David Self, who wrote last year’s truly execrable remake of The Haunting. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that the basic events of the missile crisis would need goosing along, and the resulting movie has an unpleasant hyped-up attitude that keeps getting in the way of the story. One of the most egregious examples has to do with Adlai Stevenson, then the American ambassador to the United Nations, and the adminstration’s fears that he would not be tough enough on the Soviet Union when it came time to face off on the floor of the U.N. The film practically paints a yellow stripe down Stevenson’s back (“Nobody thinks he’s up to this,” warns RFK) in order to set up a cliffhanger.

Due, presumably, to Costner’s star (and producer) status, Thirteen Days occasionally makes O’Donnell look like the real hero of the situation; there are times when he is propping up both Jack (Bruce Greenwood) and Bobby (Steven Culp) like a personal coach talking a client through a patch of self-doubt. This seems skewed; on the other hand, one recalls the moment in the documentary The War Room when George Stephanopolous was seen cooing reassurances to Bill Clinton on election night. In general, the Pentagon representatives are conniving and war-hungry (led by Kevin Conway’s blustery Curtis LeMay), the Kennedy boys are noble, if conflicted. The one actor who seems to be digging at some kind of ambiguity in his character is Dylan Baker, an inspired choice as defense secretary Robert McNamara.

It is so difficult to portray characters as familiar as the Kennedys that Greenwood and Culp deserve credit for eventually blending into their roles. But oh, is it wince-inducing when they first begin speaking; their Boston accents immediately bring to mind political impressionists from the early 1960s. But you do get used to hearing them, which is more than you can say for Costner, whose New England honk could shred paper and set dogs to yelping. None of which would be any problem if Thirteen Days would simply play fair with the marvelous story it has to tell. Instead, this overdone project dissipates its energy in strange ways (sudden shifts to black-and-white, as though hailing the spirit of Oliver Stone and that other Costner JFK movie), and makes you wish its makers had shown the same restraint the government did during the crisis.