Thirteen Days (12)
FROM the outset this political thriller about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 thankfully lacks the overt complexity of an Oliver Stone “historical drama” by relying instead on fact and documentary evidence to present a gripping re-enactment of a fingernail-chewing period of modern history.
Less than 40 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the world risked toppling over into the abyss. For 13 long days, it teetered on the brink of nuclear war as Uncle Sam took on Mother Russia over the siting of ICBMs in nearby Cuba.
It was brinkmanship at its most devastating, playing out under the world’s nervous eyes as America, in the blue corner under square-jawed John F. Kennedy, marshalled all its forces against the USSR, in the red corner, under squat, bald, gap-toothed Nikita Kruschev.
Those dark days are played out with chilling believability in Thirteen Days, a superior drama from Roger (The Bounty) Donaldson in which an ensemble cast, headed by Kevin Costner, seek to outwit the Communist hordes and save the planet from oblivion.
Like James Cameron’s Titanic, Thirteen Days does not suffer from the fact that the audience knows the story’s ending – the world didn’t go up in a cloud of radioactive dust.
Instead, thanks to a sparkling script shot through with memorable dialogue – “The big red dog is digging in our back yard and we are justified in shooting him,” says one frighteningly gung-ho general – this becomes excellent stuff.
Returning to the screen after a string of notable flops, Costner leads the ensemble cast with aplomb. He plays Kenny McNamara, right-hand man to the Kennedys and the character through which the whole deadly chess game is played out.
In essence, Costner plays two roles: the man at the epicentre of the crisis and an observer of history in the making. He is the Everyman.
Yet while Costner (now looking every day of his 46 years) scores a significant hit (though his accent evaporates as the film progresses) it is the casting of Bruce Greenwood, as JFK, and Steven Culp, as RFK, which is the movie’s real coup.
Their adroit playing of the two young men potentially responsible for steering the world away from disaster forms the core of a white-knuckle thriller which eschews unnecessary drama for the cut and thrust of life in the high-stress corridors of the White House.
Throw in authentic period newsreel footage, seamlessly inserted into the film, and scenes of schoolchildren hiding beneath their desks in training for a nuclear attack, and a measure of the naiveté with which the West approached mutually assured destruction can be fully understood.
Most of all, Donaldson peels away the veneer of legend which has surrounded the Kennedys since their days of a Washington Camelot. He carefully deconstructs the Kennedy myth and shows just how close to doom the world came through scenes picturing JFK as anguished and indecisive, while RFK displays the petulance of a schoolboy.
This is expertly conceived, soaked in irony, and terrifyingly real. Though marginally too long, it nevertheless rightly belongs to the pantheon of great political thrillers, up there with Fail Safe, All the President’s Men and, it has to be said, Oliver Stone’s labyrinthine JFK.