How the Kennedys saved the world

Review: In `Thirteen Days,' the young president handles the Cuban Missile Crisis masterfully.

January 12, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

Say what you will about John F. Kennedy, but the bottom line is that, were it not for him, you probably wouldn't be reading this newspaper right now.

For it was under his watch that the world stood as close to the nuclear brink as it ever should. His refusal to make a rash decision that he simply couldn't embrace is why we still get to talk about nuclear war in the abstract.

That's what leadership is all about, and that's the crux of "Thirteen Days," a terrifically engrossing war film in which not a single shot is fired, a movie about shaping events rather than being shaped by them.

Director Roger Donaldson's taut restaging of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis also provides an acting primer on how to portray a historical figure without simply trying to imitate him.

That figure would be JFK, and the actor who succeeds so magnificently in bringing him to the screen is Bruce Greenwood, a native Canadian best known until now for a handful of television series ("St. Elsewhere" and "Nowhere Man") and several films directed by countryman Atom Egoyan ("Exotica," "The Sweet Hereafter").

Greenwood doesn't look much like the president - he's handsome, but not in the patrician way Kennedy embodied. And his Boston accent, while noticeable, isn't nearly as pronounced (if you want to watch someone overdo the accent, check William Devane's otherwise fine performance in 1974's "The Missiles of October").

But it only takes a few minutes onscreen for Greenwood to win us over. This Kennedy is a man still struggling, after 21 months on the job, to convince everyone he's worthy of it. He knows he's not too young, too inexperienced or too soft on communism, but he's having trouble selling that to everyone else. He's a fascinating mix of self-confidence and frustration, an enigma smart enough to let only a few people know him completely - and then trust them implicitly.

One of those few trusted souls, of course, is his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp). Another is Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), a friend since college days who's come to Washington as special assistant to the president. It's through O'Donnell's eyes that we watch events unfold over the 13 days between the discovery that nuclear missiles are being assembled in Cuba and the announcement that they would be dismantled and returned to Russia.

Kennedy struggles to come up with an appropriate response to the buildup in Cuba, preferably one that won't result in huge mushroom clouds. The military, still smarting from the Bay of Pigs fiasco (when a CIA-backed Cuban invasion never got off the beach), is all for sending the armed forces in yesterday to destroy those missiles. When Kennedy asks alpha hawk Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway) what the Soviet response would be to such a move, the general smugly assures him there would be no response. The Russians, he says, would be too scared of what might happen to risk war with the United States.

Kennedy regards such complacency as unlikely, but he's facing a dilemma. Having Soviet missiles 90 miles from Florida is unacceptable. But so is a war that could lead to nuclear annihilation - especially when there's a chance, however remote, that diplomacy might work.

One of the distinct pleasures of "Thirteen Days" is the abundance of heroes it offers. Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker) gets to tell off the Army brass, who seem perfectly willing to disregard their commander-in-chief's orders; an Air Force commander (played by JFK's nephew, Christopher Lawford) being used as an unknowing pawn gets to do the right thing; and, perhaps most enjoyably, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman) gets to tell off the Soviets directly to their face, in front of the whole world.

And there are some terrifically suspenseful sequences, especially those dealing with the U.S. blockade of Cuba and Kennedy's resolve not to let any Soviet ships (or submarines) pass - even if that means firing on them. History shows that was never necessary, but don't let that spoil the suspense.

Costner, although he's both the film's producer and its big-name star, is just one member of the uniformly strong ensemble cast. Perhaps because the fate of the film doesn't rest squarely on his shoulders, he turns in one of his finest performances, even adopting a serviceable (if a little broad) Boston accent. And Culp's Robert Kennedy meshes perfectly with Greenwood's JFK, conviction for conviction, doubt for doubt.

Donaldson, directing from a script by David Self, keeps things crackling. But more importantly, he keeps the focus narrow. This is not a film about the Kennedy presidency, or a look at the man's peccadilloes or an effort to explain why he did what he hid. "Thirteen Days" is not meant to deify John Kennedy.

Rather, it points out that, for 13 days in 1962, he was as great a leader as we have any right to expect.

`Thirteen Days'

Starring Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp

Directed by Roger Donaldson

Released by New Line Cinema

Rated PG-13

Running time 145 minutes

Sun score: ****

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