“Thirteen Long Days”
by Scott Mantz

“Thirteen Days”
Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood
Directed by Roger Donaldson

Steven Culp, Bruce Greenwood, and Kevin Costner face a clear and present danger in “Thirteen Days”

There’s no doubt about it–times are tough. Just when it looked like there was going to be peace in the Middle East, talks broke down. Last year, the threat of overpopulation intensified when the number of people soared past the 6 billion mark (even more incredible when you consider that it doubled only in the last 50 years alone). Then, of course, there are the ridiculous events of the last few weeks, where we still don’t have a clue who the next president is going to be.

Yes, times are tough, but you know what? They’ve been worse–a lot worse. There was a time, not too long ago, when the world came so close to the brink of nuclear war that people were building bomb shelters right in their own backyards. For two hellacious weeks in late 1962, the two biggest superpowers in the world got into a staring contest for which there would have be no real winners. Forget about killer asteroids–this was the real Armageddon.

The Cuban Missile Crisis happened almost 40 years ago, and it’s a fascinating story. Unfortunately, the battle to bring it to the big screen might not have been worth the wait. Maybe “Thirteen Days” was shot in actual time, because despite a riveting concept and some stellar performances, the film is marred by dangerously slow pacing, surprisingly underdeveloped characters, and an overall structure that fails to take an emotional hold.

The year is 1962. Vietnam is some tiny country that nobody could find on a map, the country is in a race to put a man on the moon, and the Kennedys are running Camelot. When a surveillance mission over Cuba yields the presence of Soviet nuclear warheads, President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) is forced to take action. Just what that action is depends upon the validity of his facts, but Kenneth P. O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) is on hand as his most trusted aid to help him arrive to the most logical and peaceful conclusion.

Where docu-dramas are concerned, the trick is to make a movie that will not only be factually correct, but will be entertaining as well. The line between truth and creative license is a tough one to walk, but if it’s done right, the results can be as engaging, engrossing, and riveting as films like “All the President’s Men” and “The Insider.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with “Thirteen Days.” There’s no doubt that this is a story that needs to be told (let’s face it–global-thermonuclear war is a bad, bad thing!), but the film spends far too much time looking at what’s going on behind closed doors instead of what’s going on in the outside world. It’s too confined and talky when it should have been worldly and chaotic, and the true meaning of what’s at stake is not effectively conveyed. Certain scenes between O’Donnell and his family provide some insight as to how the rest of the world is dealing with the crisis, but they are too few and far between for the film to be the emotionally gripping drama that it should be.

“Thirteen Days” still has some fascinating moments, particularly in light of recent events. The real battle here is not between the United States and the Soviet Union, but between the President Kennedy and his own people. It’s been only a few months since the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the old guard is still licking its wounds. An attack on Cuba would be just what the doctor ordered, but it’s clear that these war mongers aren’t thinking long-term.

On the surface, “Thirteen Days” may sound like a return to form for Kevin Costner, but then again, so did “For Love of the Game.” Costner may deliver a strong and assured performance, but he will never be compared to Meryl Streep when it comes to mastering various forms of dialect. He lays on the Boston accent thick and strong in the beginning, only to have it taper off as the film progresses. Instead of adding validity to the character, it becomes more of a distraction.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp play two of the most imitated political figures in US history, and they pull it off with flying colors. Greenwood gives a strong, understated performance as Jack Kennedy, refusing to fall into imitation and playing him as a real person torn between opposing views (and incidentally, he does the smart thing by practically avoiding the Kennedy accent). The same goes for Culp, who gives a star-making turn as Bobby Kennedy. He’s fiercely protective of his family’s name, even though he realizes that his father had a lot to do with them being in office in the first place. He and his brother have a lot to prove, and it makes their task even more difficult to accomplish.

By sticking too close to the facts, director Roger Donaldson (who previously directed Costner in 1987’s “No Way Out”) made a film that would have been more at home on The History Channel than at the local cineplex. Movies should entertain as well as inform, but “Thirteen Days” does too much of the latter and not enough of the former. This is a story that needs to be told, but it’s too long, too drawn out, and too underdeveloped–and that, my fellow Americans, is too bad.