The Cuban missile crisis, which in bringing the East and West to the brink of nuclear conflict represented the tensest moment of the Cold War, has been turned into a solid historical thriller in “Thirteen Days.” Reasonably intelligent, well-crafted and dramatically understated by contemporary standards, this capably acted look at how the Kennedy White House navigated a successful course through treacherous political seas has all the prosaic virtues of a high-end, old-fashioned television production, albeit with a few modest action elements thrown in. With sufficient critical support, this prestige New Line Christmas release should draw well among serious-minded adult viewers, especially with boomers who retain youthful memories of school nuke-attack drills and JFK’s TV speech. Potential appeal to younger viewers, to whom the era in question seems as remote as the Crusades, is another matter, but channeling history into a suspense format can only help in this regard.
Most significant previous dramatic treatment of the incident came, in fact, on television, in the acclaimed 1974 ABC Theater production “The Missiles of October,” written by Stanley Greenberg, directed by Anthony Page and starring William Devane as JFK and Martin Sheen as RFK. That production possessed more scope in the sense that it covered events in Moscow as well as in Washington, D.C. (Howard da Silva played Khrushchev), while new rendition skews things to put a peripheral figure from the three-hour TV film, presidential aide Kenny O’Donnell, into the center of the action.
O’Donnell, a member of the Kennedy “Irish Mafia” who had been a Harvard classmate of Bobby’s and had worked on JFK’s Senate campaigns, was especially trusted by the president on military matters and, if not a decisionmaker per se, was a valued adviser and tough-minded problem solver. While placing O’Donnell in the orbit of critical events, David Self’s script, fortunately, isn’t intent upon inflating him with undue importance, and positioning such a figure in the foreground puts the Kennedy brothers in relief in a way that helpfully removes some of their iconic aura.
As always with this sort of project depicting a relatively recent event, there will be carping and naysaying about its accuracy by those with personal memories of the event. Dramatically, however, Self’s decisions work pretty well, and viewer confidence about the way the film depicts the speculation, arguments, machinations, negotiations, brinkmanship and compromises involved in resolving the crisis is bolstered by a basis in tape recordings of many of the discussions.
In rather too-insistent fashion, extensive footage of nuclear explosions is used to set the context for the standoff that began Oct. 16, 1962, when U.S. spy plane photographs revealed that the USSR had smuggled medium-range ballistic missiles into Cuba and was within a couple of weeks of making operational nuclear weapons that could reach the American capital within five minutes.
No background as to the whys or hows of this development are offered, notably the fact that Soviet Premier Khrushchev had been so unimpressed with President Kennedy at their summit meeting that he thought he could get away with such an audacious gamble. American officials were stunned by the revelation — as O’Donnell puts it, “I feel like we caught the Jap carriers steaming for Pearl Harbor” — and for six days they managed to keep the news a secret while they scrambled to develop a proper response that the president, for one, hoped could stop short of a military strike that would likely trigger an all-out war, with West Berlin as the likely first casualty.
In workmanlike fashion that maintains a judicious, unfrenzied focus on the personal jockeying among JFK’s Cabinet members and advisers against the backdrop of monumental events, director Roger Donaldson steadily lays out the drama’s many twists and turns while adroitly slipping many characters into the mix. On the one side are the hawks, led by Dean Acheson and two generals, Maxwell Taylor and Curtis LeMay, who fairly drool at this golden opportunity to blow up “the red bastards.” On the other side are liberal doves personified by U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, whose natural inclination toward diplomacy and negotiation has the stench of timid appeasement to everyone else.
In between in their uncertainty about what to do are nearly all the others, including JFK, who at moments all but commits to a military response, only to let prudence overtake him, a hesitance no doubt forged on the shores of the Bay of Pigs disaster early in his presidency. Placed in charge of ExComm, the exec committee of the National Security Council, Bobby keeps pushing for alternatives to a military strike and finally gets one from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who floats the idea of a naval blockade.
It’s this plan that the president presents to the public when he makes his fateful TV address on Oct. 22, and while the rest is history, there are many intriguing and suspenseful wrinkles along the way to Khrushchev’s final capitulation and the removal of the missiles: risky low-level flights over Cuba to get a better look at the installations, near-disastrous encounters with Soviet ships headed for the island, Stevenson’s surprisingly tough “hell freezes over” speech at the U.N., the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane, uncertainty over Khrushchev’s fate and the back-channel contact with a Russian spy and subsequent secret meeting between RFK and Anatoly Dobrinyn that resulted in the last-minute defusing of tensions.
It’s all as dramatic and powerful as real-life stories come, and Donaldson and Self respect this fact by dealing the cards straight, with no frills or stylistic affectations. Most of the drama consists of men in suits and uniforms arguing tactics and mulling things over in well-upholstered rooms. But the way in which they wrestle with agonizing issues, largely maintain their cool and finally land on their feet proves very absorbing, and the entire episode makes one grateful that, on this occasion, at least, the U.S. government was in good hands.
Given the memorable looks and distinctive vocal qualities of JFK and RFK, portraying them is always a dicey enterprise, but Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, respectively, pull it off. Lankier and a bit more taciturn than one remembers the president, Greenwood folds his arms a lot and affects other gestures with his hands and wrists. But he manages to catch an intelligence and thoughtfulness vital to a successful impersonation of the young chief executive, and he gains in authority just as the character does. As the attorney general, Culp appropriately assumes more aggressive body language and pours more blunt energy into his quite credible portrait.
Having already starred as a Southerner in “JFK,” Costner is back again in Kennedy country, only this time in possession of a Boston accent that’s less reliable than those assumed by Greenwood and Culp. All the same, one stops dwelling on the vicissitudes of the regional dialect after the initial scenes, and Costner ends up giving a low-key, unshowy performance that blends effectively with the ensemble. No one is given the opportunity for showstopping cameos, and Donaldson deserves credit for adroitly orchestrating the large and capable supporting cast, keeping the identities of the participants pretty clear and smoothly bringing them in and out of the spotlight.
Tech contributions are straightforward and supportive without calling attention to themselves.