Thirteen Days (review)

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October Sky

My friend and I startled the poor woman sitting next to us at the multiplex, as we all waited for Thirteen Days to begin, by revealing that we had not yet been born in October of 1962. That’s when she, as a 10- year- old, had been frightened into writing her will by the nuclear posturing in which the United States and the Soviet Union engaged over Cuba.

Still, I’m old enough to have been scared shitless by duck- and- cover bomb drills in elementary school and The Day After in early primetime when I was in junior high — imagine the uproar there’d be today if a network wanted to show the annihilation of Middle America before the kiddies’ bedtime. These kids today… they’ve got no idea what it’s like to live under the shadow of a mushroom cloud.
So it’s a different world to which Thirteen Days returns us, one strikingly innocent in some respects and startlingly sly and sophisticated in others. Director Roger Donaldson — who’d been responsible mostly for schlock like Cocktail and Species previously — uses a semidocumentary style to tell an understated but hard-edged tale of how the world found itself on the verge of nuclear apocalypse, softened by an elegiac nostalgia for the lost Kennedys who pulled us back from the brink.

The film opens with a series of images of nuclear explosions that flattens you back into your seat, a searing reminder of the supreme fear of the day: Cold War erupting into a very hot one. That fear seemed likely to manifest itself during the two weeks in October 1962 that began when U.S. spy planes took photographs of Soviet troops installing short- and medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba… in America’s backyard. Donaldson and screenwriter David Self (The Haunting) keep a tight focus on a few offices and conference rooms in the Kennedy White House and the Pentagon to relate the chilling and surprisingly suspenseful story of a few days in which war as it was previously known ceased to exist, replaced by a new kind of combat employing the weapons of international politics and diplomacy.

It’s an enormous story, one that might have been unwieldy and messy if not for the down-to-earth solidity it achieves by showing us all through the eyes of the ultimate insider, JFK’s political adviser and RFK’s close friend Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner: Message in a Bottle, The Postman), a man with the President’s ear and a desk right off the Oval Office. The result is perhaps the most human depiction of Jack and Bobby we’ve ever seen — stripped of the worshipful aura that typically surrounds even the mention of the Kennedy name (see Oliver Stone’s JFK), we are left with two men fighting perceptions of weakness in their administration and struggling with the legacy of appeasement their father, as one of the architects of Munich, left them. Bruce Greenwood (Double Jeopardy, The Sweet Hereafter) as Jack and Steven Culp as Bobby give two of the most marvelously elegant performances this year, not bothering to attempt impersonating such well-known historical figures — though it’s remarkable what an accent and a haircut can do: both actors nevertheless effortlessly summon their real-life counterparts. But instead of larger-than-life icons, they give us real, flawed, scared men: the twinges of back pain that signal the strain Jack is under, the expression of sheer terror on Bobby’s face as he’s about to lay down an ultimatum to the Russian ambassador, the two brothers sharing an incredulous reaction to the battle plans of their hawkish military advisers.

From the strains of horns on the score that evoke air-raid sirens to the shifting from color to black-and-white following the film’s swinging moods of optimism and pessimism, Thirteen Days is never less than unsettling. But mixed into this nail-biter of a political thriller is a poignant lament for simpler times long gone, when the enemy was obvious and the direction from which danger loomed was well known. One quick scene, shocking in our hindsight, sees JFK in a motorcade, sitting on the back of an open convertible as the public run up to him to greet him and touch him — the concept that this could be risky is nonexistent. As the film closes, the emergency over, we leave Jack and Bobby chatting, relaxed at last, on a porch off the Oval Office, and their moment of triumph is tempered by our foreknowledge that Jack would be unjustly dead in a year, and Bobby a few years later. They may have been the cooler heads that prevailed in a time when there was “no wise old man,” as O’Donnell notes, to guide the nation through the crisis, but even they had no clue that a world in which the peril was clear-cut would soon be gone, and they would be among the first victims of this lost innocence.

Addendum 07.09.01
If you find the political intrigue of Thirteen Days, well, intriguing, and you want to know more, check out the DVD release of the film. Presented in a new format called Infinifilm, it integrates snippets of fascinating information right into the moviewatching experience: If you find yourself wondering exactly what America’s nuclear cabability was at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, or just how influential Kenny O’Donnell was in JFK’s adminstration, click on one of the links that pop up along the bottom of the screen while the movie runs for all sorts of info that puts the film into greater historical and political context. And it’s not just stuff of historical importance that’s accessible this way: Infinifilm is cool because it blends the typical DVD extras into the running of the film, so that when, say, a particular set first appears, up comes a link that offers some perspective on its creation from the set designer. There’s also the usual cast and crew filmographies and interviews with director Roger Donaldson and other production types. Best of all, you can see deleted scenes from the point in the film at which they were cut — I love this!

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