January 26, 2001

History with Prof. Costner

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Thirteen Days, a captivating political thriller, is director Roger Donaldson’s attempt to bring a crucial moment in modern American history to the big screen. Unfortunately, the very nature of the story itself is enough to make this effort an unsuccessful one.

The story is straight out of the history books. In October 1962, the United States learned that the USSR was secretly deploying nuclear weaponry to communist Cuba, the detonation of which could theoretically have killed millions of American people. Of course, President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) could not stand idly by in the midst of this potential threat. Thirteen Days portrays the behind-the-scenes intrigue that took place within the upper echelons of the American government to combat this Cuban Missile Crisis.

President Kennedy is aided by his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp), and his special assistant, Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) who together are the protagonists of the film.

Thirteen Days is high on production values, but its stature is diminished by the true story on which the plot is based. The outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis is quite well-known (we won), so the story lacked real suspense. Of course, there were many lesser-known twists and turns leading up to the final result that were interesting to discover. Ultimately, these were not enough to bolster any tension the film tried to convey.

The film also had an odd tendency of reverting from color to black and white and back again. This was most likely done to add a distinct historical flavor to the movie, but was actually distracting and unnecessary. It causes the illusion that there is something wrong with the projector.

The saving grace of the film lies in the performances, particularly Culp’s. He bears a striking resemblance to the late Robert Kennedy, and has that idiosyncratic accent, so much identified with the Kennedy clan, down pat. Greenwood is good as JFK, depicting him as an unsure, at times indecisive, leader — a contrast to the way we now think of the late president. The only noticeable weakness among the cast is Costner, whose accent sounds awkward and forced, and at times downright annoying.

Thirteen Days is good for a quick history lesson (taken with a grain of salt), but its lack of true suspense — due to the well-known nature of the events involved — essentially hurts its entertainment appeal.

Archived article by Adam Cooper