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[whitespace] Kevin Costner Dances With Missiles: Kevin Costner saves the free world from nuclear war in 'Thirteen Days.'


October Game

'Thirteen Days' is a dull and duplicitous account of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962

By Richard von Busack

YOU'D NEVER THINK that a movie about something as momentous as the end of the world could be so dull. By now, the Cuban missile crisis is ancient history. How the United States and the U.S.S.R. came close to nuclear war in October 1962 is trivia save to the terrified people who lived through the scare. Thirteen Days, Roger Donaldson's lagging drama about the crisis, keeps a hushed, serious tone, like a management-training film. Most of the action takes place in small windowless conference rooms. The strategies Donaldson uses to break up the endless meetings include a SAM missile/U2 encounter, scenes of jets locking and loading--the Navy: It's not just a job, it's an adventure--and the prettiest golden mushroom clouds you've ever seen. As the crisis deepens, we also see people gathered around TVs and radios, patiently awaiting the outcome. These moments are like the stock footage of the panicked yet orderly public in a giant ant-attack movie.

In yet another unseasoned, uninflected performance, Kevin Costner frowns with concern throughout his role as the presidential adviser Kenny O'Donnell. O'Donnell, an ex-football teammate of the Kennedys, was, in this account, the man who really told President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, what they ought to do. Costner, who co-produced, must have had some say in the hiring of two highly undistinguished actors to play the president and his brother. The chief impression left by Bruce Greenwood as JFK and Steven Culp as RFK is that they got the hairstyles right.

In briefer parts, nearly uncredited actors steal the show as Secretary of State Dean Atcheson and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson shows up in the film's big dramatic moment: the besting of Soviet Ambassador V.A. Zorin at the U.N. on Oct. 23, 1962. Read the actual transcript of the Zorin/Stevenson interchange, and you'll learn what Thirteen Days leaves out: how Stevenson had been bamboozled into denying any U.S. intention to invade Cuba, days before it actually happened at the Bay of Pigs.

All of this ignored backstory is deliberate in order to sell the movie's idealized version of the way the Kennedy administration handled the crisis. Surely enough time has passed that we can learn the Russian side of the events, if only to hear them cackling, like good movie villains? Static in the extreme and robbed of any of the details of the personalities--beyond the reminders of JFK's aching back--this sanitized official history scapegoats the military. By contrasting the war hawks with the efforts of JFK's advisers, it makes the Kennedy administration's brinkmanship look like a great gamble worth taking. So Thirteen Days is worse than dull; it's duplicitous. Forty years after the event, here it is again: the Time/Life magazine-style celebration of the near catastrophe as a Kennedy triumph. As cinema and history, then, Thirteen Days is a great leap backward into the logic and movie aesthetics of the Cold War.


Thirteen Days (PG-13; 145 min.), directed by Roger Donaldson, written by David Self, photographed by Andrzej Bartkowiak and starring Kevin Costner, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the January 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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