Saturday 15 January 2022

Movie Review: Thirteen Days (2000)

A Cold War political drama, Thirteen Days recreates events at the White House during the Cuban Missiles Crisis. 

In October 1962, US aerial spy photographs reveal new Soviet nuclear missile bases under construction in Cuba. Special Assistant to the President Kenneth O'Donnell (Kevin Costner) is a witness as President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp) assess the situation with military and political advisors. They determine the missiles are an existential threat and have to be removed within days, before they become operational.

With the Soviets denying the existence of the bases, American military commanders argue for aerial bombing followed by an invasion of Cuba. The Kennedys recognize forceful action could lead to a global nuclear war. Other administration officials, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker) and Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman) propose more considered options, including a blockade of Cuba and trading the removal of US missiles in Turkey. With the world marching towards devastation, President Kennedy has to make the toughest decisions of his life.

The Americans and the Soviets pulled back from the brink of a nuclear war in October of 1962, and so the ending of Thirteen Days is a matter of well-known historical fact. Which makes the film quite remarkable: director Roger Donaldson and writer David Self create a tense, almost terrifying drama, capturing the shadow of war creeping over the world, uncertainty, misinformation, clashing agendas, and miscommunication adding to the immense weight of minute-by-minute decision-making at the highest levels of government.

The movie is based on the 1997 book The Kennedy Tapes by Ernest R. May, and Philip D. Zelikow. Donaldson avoids stage confines by jumping frequently to the seas and skies around Cuba, inserting plenty of b-roll showing military hardware flexing, and taking side-trips to the United Nations. But Thirteen Days finds a home at the White House, and by focussing on the inner sanctum of American power, the film deepens the focus on the Kennedys: what they knew, when they knew it, and their ever shifting calculus. 

The scenes of O'Donnell's home life and his interactions with military men conducting surveillance of Cuba are clumsy and an overall bad fit. But the White House events are presented through his eyes, and while his role may have been exaggerated, he does provide an accessible entry point. Through the long 145 minutes of running time, the President and his brother encounter doubt and second-guessing, moments of uncertainty haunting them as they grapple with the enormity of the crisis. But they are also portrayed as beacons of good, Donaldson and Self parking their loyalties firmly with the President and portraying him as walking the finest of thin lines through the maze of bad options.

The revelations of internal differences of opinion elevate the drama. The military leaders are hawkish and itching to start a war; they are also borderline dismissive of the President and seek to circumnavigate his orders. Diplomats like Stevenson are dovish and looking for points of negotiation, but also potentially dangerously meek. A range of well-expressed viewpoints is exactly what a President needs, and Thirteen Days elegantly places the Kennedys in the eye of the storm, as the unpredictable winds of war swirl.

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