Thirteen Days

Directed by Roger Donaldson
Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
January 19, 2001

I originally meant to see Thirteen Days thirteen days ago, right after seeing The House of Mirth, but I just wasn't up for it. So I waited until its wide release last Friday to see it, and now I'm finally reviewing it a week later. If you've already spent 145 minutes of your life watching this film, I apologize for not warning you earlier. If you haven't, then let me spare you the trouble.

As you probably know, Thirteen Days is an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was the closest our country ever came to nuclear war, but it was obviously resolved peacefully thanks to the hard work of the John F. Kennedy administration. If you know your history (like the fact that you have been alive during years after 1962), this ending should come as no surprise. The intent of director Roger Donaldson was to make this suspenseful time in our nation's history a suspenseful film, even though the audience should know how it turns out.

The first problem lies in the key concept: telling the story through the perspective of presidential advisor Kenny O'Donnell, who is played by the only major star: Kevin Costner. Semi-famous actors play the roles of President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), and TV actor Steven Culp is given the role of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (mostly because he does a pretty good imitation, which was seen before in HBO's Norma Jean & Marilyn). Any of the latter three men would have had interesting perspectives (Bobby even wrote his own memoir of the events -- titled Thirteen Days), but the filmmakers chose an entirely uninteresting character because they could cast Costner.

O'Donnell was the quarterback at Harvard when the Kennedy boys went there, so he was one of many old friends that got jobs at the White House when Jack came to town. This role required Costner to speak with a tortured Massachusetts accent throughout the film's enormous length. Culp did his Bobby with greater ease, but Costner should have paid attention to Greenwood, who doesn't try to imitate Jack. He actually gives a good acting performance, as does Baker, who has the advantage of nobody remembering how McNamara spoke.

There are moments in between the questionable performances -- and the inexplicable changes to black and white -- that do relate the story well. There are moments of suspense, but it would be difficult avoid the suspense, considering that the world could blow up at any minute. The screenplay was adapted from tape transcriptions that were edited into book form by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, which may explain why the film is more like a dry dramatization than a tight thriller.

I have the feeling that Donaldson wanted to make Thirteen Days in the same manner than Oliver Stone made Nixon. He tries some of the same cinematic touches, but he sticks to a documentary formula. Stone turned the Nixon administration into something compelling, if not altogether based on facts. If I want to learn about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I'll watch the History Channel. At the theatre, just give me something interesting to watch.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Thirteen Days (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Thirteen Days (2000) -- VHS
Thirteen Days (2000) -- DVD
The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow -- Hardcover
The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow -- Paperback
Thirteen Days, a memoir by Robert F. Kennedy -- Paperback
Thirteen Days: Score, by Trevor Jones -- Compact Disc


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Review © 2001 Matt Heffernan