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13 Days

Directed by Roger Donaldson and written by David Self with Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker, Kevin Conway, and Michael Fairman, color, 145 minutes, 2000

 DVD cover

By Carter B. Horsley

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, I was working as the news assistant on the night city desk of The New York Times and I vividly recall the tension in the newsroom the few days prior to the public announcement of the crisis.

We knew something very unusual was up when the foreign editor asked us to call every foreign correspondent immediately and tell them to go out and find out what was going on, no matter what the hour was.

All we knew in the newsroom was that the President of the United States of America had called up the publisher and asked him not to publish "Scotty" Reston's column for the next day's paper.

That would seem to have offered a good clue to what was going on.  The column was pulled, but no one at the paper, including James "Scotty" Reston, the paper's top Washington correspondent at the time, who would later go on to become the executive editor, had any idea what the President was concerned about as the column was relatively innocuous.

While waiting for the calls to the correspondents to go through, everyone in the  newsroom speculated on what would cause the President to make such an extraordinary request.

It came down to three possibilities: China was about to explode an atomic weapon; Berlin was about to become the center of a very major crisis; and something might be up involving Cuba, which had rather recently been invaded by some CIA-supported exiles.

Three days later, President Kennedy went on television to announce that the Soviet Union had shipped and was installing intercontinental ballistic missiles in Cuba that threatened the United States and that the United States had told the Soviet Union it would impose a quarantine if they were not removed very soon.  A quarantine was the polite word for a naval blockade, which is a classic "act of war."

This was serious.

"13 Days" is the superb film that recreates the crisis as seen through the eyes of Kenny McDonnell, a former classmate of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy at Harvard who was serving as a special assistant to the President, John F. Kennedy.  The President and the Attorney General were very close with Mr. McDonnell, though the movie probably overemphasizes the relationships to a certain degree.

Kevin Kostner, who had been directed by Donaldson in "No Way Out," a political thriller about spies in Washington during the Cold War, plays Mr. McDonnell with a crew cut and a broad Boston accent and appropriate gravitas.

John F. Kennedy is played by Bruce Greenwood and Robert F. Kennedy is played by Steven Culp.  Both are excellent but Greenwood's performance is really quite sensational, conveying the hesitant intelligence that must somehow sort out perilous options and the trusting confidence in his younger brother's inherent gutsiness and raw instincts.  They are an inseparable and potent team and combined with O'Donnell's flinty festyness and political acumen they are barely able to carry the day with the hawks in their administration and the overreaching miscalculations of their Soviet counterparts.  

In his December 25, 2000 review in The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell makes the following observation:

"Mr. Donaldson has embraced the notion of depicting many moments as either shouting matches or snatches of tense contemplation behind closed doors. No one creeps on eggshells here; characters stomp on them hard enough to detonate them. It's possible that the screenwriter David Self chose the 'Clash of the Titans' school of drama to give the material a rumble and try to shake away the stench of history."

Mr. Mitchell is right about the eggshells but the script is intelligent and intelligible and has just the right amount of elegant and restrained hysteria: we catch the President looking out a window at the White House at his wife and children and Mr. O'Donnell visiting his son at football practice. 

In the December 12, 2000 edition of The Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote that:

"Galloping into the holiday season with a cloud of dust and a hearty 'Hi-yo, Silver,' Thirteen Days evokes a thrilling yesteryear of beehive hairdos, afternoon editions, and open-top limousines - when being president of the United States actually meant something. The veteran director Roger Donaldson and young screenwriter David Self have risen above their previous work to fashion a tense and engrossing political thriller from the transcripts of tapes made in the secretly bugged White House offices where John F. Kennedy and associates managed the potential Armageddon known as the Cuban missile crisis."

Hoberman adds that:

"Thirteen Days adds little to what is known about the missile crisis but subtracts quite a bit. The Cubans are barely a factor - although, according to Russian archival material published in 1997, Castro panicked and began agitating for a nuclear first strike. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, the man who blundered into the crisis and who, more than anyone else, found a way to blunder out, is totally invisible."

The film plunges right into the crisis without giving the background of the aborted invasion of Cuba, the sensitive subject of the President's religion lack of enthusiasm for godless Communism, and the very conservative political background of the president's father, who was a former Ambassador to the Court of St. James who was an admirer of Hilter.

Perhaps most importantly, the firm makes no reference to the fact that Adlai E. Stevenson had twice been the Democratic Presidential candidate and was widely regarded as the most intellectual liberal in the country.  A great many liberals had anticipated that President Kennedy would appoint Stevenson as Secretary of State and were shocked that he was named Ambassador to the United Nations, a much less important post.

It does, however, very clearly depict the antipathy that the President had for Stevenson and the concerns of the Attorney General that he would not be strong enough to confront the Russians at a very critical juncture in the crisis at the United Nations.  Stevenson, of course, would show his mettle with his famous "I wait til hell freezes over" comment.

The crisis has more ups and downs than the public was then aware of and if the movie has a major flaw it is that it wastes little time in analyzing whether there were other choices than a blockade since American missiles in Turkey were as threatening as those that were being assembled in Cuba.  It conveniently overlooks the Monroe Doctrine as a colonialistic and imperial presumption that it is fine for the United States to interfere in the interior affairs of foreign countries in its hemisphere.  Why not let Hitler have Europe? This, of course, was deep into the Cold War and the country had already been brainwashed by McCarthyism about the evil Communists.

The President and the Attorney General and Mr. O'Donnell were heroic in their patient search for a way out of the crisis, which was very real. 

Khrushschev's decision at the last winter to withdraw in exchange for an unannounced plan by the United States to withdraw from Turkey six months later was stunning and hopefully someone will make a film about the crisis from the Soviet viewpoint.

The fact that the nation's defense alert status was upped without the President's consent and that the rules of engagement were being tested and that coups were not easy to analyze were elements that the general public was not alert to at the time.

The Infinifilm DVD includes several documentaries on the crisis.

This is a very important film that not only terrifies fail-safe scenarios but also gives a lot of insight into the character of both President Kennedy and Attorney General Kennedy and they come off admirably under pressure.

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This film ranks 97th in Carter B. Horsley's 500 Top Sound Films

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