Monday, June 10, 2013

From My Collection: Thirteen Days Movie Review

The Kennedys are a mythologized family and political dynasty. The brothers John F. and Robert, because of their tragic and untimely deaths through assassination, are lionized more than almost any other political figure of the last century. Because they also had distinctive accents, speech patterns, and styles, it’s difficult to portray them on film without resorting to some form of ghastly imitation. Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film Thirteen Days, about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, gets the casting so right for their roles that at times you almost forget you’re watching icons. You’re really seeing these characters, these men, trying to avert nuclear war and the destruction of life as we know it.

As President Kennedy, Bruce Greenwood doesn’t bear any great physical resemblance to the man, nor does he adopt a very thick accent, and his voice is deeper than Kennedy’s, but he plays the physicality of the part spot on. Kennedy suffered from chronic back troubles. You see this in Greenwood’s performance as he leans on furniture while standing and occasionally grimaces while shifting positions. Greenwood is now a recognizable character actor, having appeared in prominent roles in last year’s Flight as well as the J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek movies, but in 2000 he was virtually unknown and so was able to bring an Everyman quality to JFK. Of course, Kennedy was anything but an Everyman. He came from a prominent wealthy Massachusetts family and became the youngest elected U.S. President in history. But for the purposes of the film Thirteen Days, it is vitally important to the story to see him as a man rather than the legend. Greenwood pulls it off beautifully.

Even better is Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy, the President’s younger brother, right hand man, Attorney General, and most trusted political adviser and confidante. Culp has an incredibly strong physical resemblance to Bobby in this film and adopts so many of his subtle mannerisms that you might be forgiven for thinking at times you’re watching file footage. Like Greenwood, Culp is also now a recognizable actor, primarily for his “Desperate Housewives” role, but in 2000 had done some sporadic TV work and the odd feature film.

Without these two great performances, Thirteen Days might have ended up more as farce than taut political thriller. David Self’s screenplay is primarily based on the book The Kennedy Tapes – Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. By most accounts, it holds fairly accurately to the facts as reported at the time, as related in the book (which itself was partly based on audio recordings made of the deliberations between Kennedy and his advisers), and from documents newly declassified before the film was made. One area of complaint about the film’s straying from truth is in the character of Kenny O’Donnell, here played by Kevin Costner. He was a Harvard football college buddy of Bobby’s, introduced to the Kennedy family and becoming part of that inner circle in the 1940s. He was John Kennedy’s chief political adviser and then White House Chief of Staff. His role as trusted adviser taking an active role in negotiations is apparently grossly exaggerated for the purpose of dramatic license.

O’Donnell’s role in the film’s story is to give the general public entrance and audience with these mythical figures. In addition to the Kennedys, there’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), Generals Curtis LeMay and Maxwell Taylor. These are political giants, men we know by name and action only. By placing O’Donnell at the fore, and showing most everything through his eyes, he functions almost as our guide. The film begins with him at breakfast with his family – his wife and five children. They have normal family issues like anyone else. We can see ourselves in him. He’s not a Kennedy in name, only in invitation.

Donaldson makes Thirteen Days one of those great historical films that ratchets up the tension despite our knowledge that everyone turns out okay in the end. Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, we know the outcome, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself gripping the arm of your chair as you realize just how close to the brink we actually came to nuclear war in 1962. The film reveals O’Donnell and the Kennedys as men who are trying to do right morally, fighting to keep the world from entering nuclear war. Try as they might, it continually looks like every course of action ends with missiles being launched. The scenes involving all the military advisers are striking, but when the three principles retreat to their private discussions, that’s when we get to see how vulnerable they are. Then you consider how difficult it must have been to stand up to military brass who fought the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany when they’re itching for a fight (not to mention they have the Bay of Pigs catastrophe hanging over their heads).

The Kennedys were new to politics. Though JFK served in WWII as did O’Donnell, they were not great military leaders like Eisenhower. His respect from the military guys is not easily earned. The most sobering thought I had watching the movie was that Bobby was only 36 when this happened. Think about that a moment. That’s a year older than me and here he was making big decisions on the biggest stage imaginable. I can’t fathom that responsibility.

And then there’s Donaldson’s movie to bring it all home. Most of the movie is a lot of talk behind closed doors, although he does open it up a couple of times with some intense flying missions to take spy photos over Cuba. These scenes serve to release us from the staidness of the deliberations taking place in Washington. There are big lessons to be learned from these events for any politicians working in national office. A man needs to make a moral choice and stand behind it. Even if he’s wrong, at the end of the day he can still feel good about his convictions. Donaldson and Self show us that well.

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