Focusing on the early days of what would become known as the Cuban missile crisis, Thirteen Days shows President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) repeatedly referring to Barbara Tuchman’s then-recently published The Guns of August. In Tuchman’s account of Europe during the first 30 days of World War I, Kennedy saw an important lesson: Both sides believed that they thoroughly knew their enemy — what the other thought, how the other would react — but no one fully realized that the world had changed so much (in technology, in attitudes) that their old presumptions about a European conflict only fed the escalation into global war. Kennedy was determined not to make the same mistake, an important decision since he was faced with the very real prospect of World War III, with massive arsenals of nuclear weapons now part of the equation.
David Self’s smart, tight screenplay focuses squarely on the Oval Office, where Kennedy consults with his key advisers, particularly his brother, Robert (Steven Culp), and aide Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner, surprisingly tough and contained, sporting a blunt, working-class New England accent). It’s O’Donnell, privy to the inner workings of the White House, who serves as the audience’s guide through these tense days. Realizing that Soviet military buildup in Cuba is a real threat, he carries around the gut feeling that the outcome will be war, but Kenny’s tenacity — his bulldog stubbornness and ferocity — is on the side of the president, whom director Roger Donaldson portrays as struggling hard not to fight.
What makes Thirteen Days so exciting is the way in which Donaldson transforms this real-life chess game into an epic political thriller. He switches back and forth between infighting at the Pentagon (the old-guard generals see the Kennedys as reckless dilettantes) and the military exercises which serve as nerve-racking games of chicken between the superpowers. The complex maneuverings, the way these men must continually interpret each new piece of information and calculate the right response: This is exciting stuff, an intellectual cat-and-mouse game with global repercussions.
Although he’s exploring heroics in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Donaldson chooses not to view the Kennedys as tragic American icons. Thirteen Days shows the Cuban missile crisis unfolding with a real-time immediacy, not comfortable hindsight. Also, by filming close-ups of the superb Greenwood sans makeup, Donaldson deglosses the forever young JFK, making him more starkly human and brave, a man who carries the heavy burden for a future he doesn’t know he won’t see.
With the kind of confidence shown by few Hollywood directors, Donaldson slips several times into black-and-white, reminding contemporary audiences how politics were viewed in 1962, then bleeding back into color to show the full spectrum (he also bridges two eras with Christopher Lawford in the small, pivotal role of a reconnaissance pilot).
Like The Guns of August, Thirteen Days serves as a cautionary tale, a model of fighting for peace while on the brink of war.
E-mail Serena Donadoni at firstname.lastname@example.org.