"This is not a blockade," Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker) screams at an Admiral who’s defending his adherence to the so-called rules of engagement. "This is a language, a language that the President is trying to speak with Khruschev." This statement encapsulates the essence of this cerebral political thriller: when diplomatic channels aren’t used, the moves towards war and the signals conveyed between countries become the talk instead.
And there’s a lot of hard-hitting talk in this film based on the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, ably directed by Roger Donaldson. America’s President John F Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) is trying to come to a decision about what to do when American spy planes photograph Soviet nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba. The missiles could be functional in mere weeks, giving the Soviet Union a first strike capability, and the ability to kill up to 80 million Americans in a matter of minutes. With the assistance of his brother and the Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Steven Culp), and political advisor Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), JFK tries to make a decision that means they won’t be on an unstoppable path to nuclear war. This is game theory – and human nature – in action.
If the Americans sit tight, the Soviets might make use of that capability. If they approach the Russions directly, they’ll find out that the Americans know and the sites could become operational while negotiations drag on. If they attack by stealth, the Soviets are likely to retaliate in Berlin, dragging the US into war under its NATO obligations. If they offer to make a deal by pulling their missiles out of Turkey, they’ll look like they think US security is more important than that of its allies.
The world knows what happened: JFK instituted a naval blockade and at the eleventh hour the USSR backed down, averting what could have been a catastrophic war. As always with films of this type, the major challenge is to keep the audience interested in how the known outcome is reached. At nearly two and a half hours, this is a serious challenge, particularly given only a sprinkling of action scenes outside the White House and Pentagon, which strictly serve the story, rather than vice versa. Furthermore, Khrushchev and the Russians (except for one) are never seen; it’s a risky move, but one that successfully avoids stereotyping them.
Refreshingly, Thirteen Days respects its audience by presuming them to be intelligent enough to follow the complex manoevrings as the military hawks push for war and the Kennedys and O’Donnelly insist on maintaining peace. This is unconventional enough for a mainstream film, and if at times it slips into being a little tiresome by taking itself too seriously, it is at least a sincere effort to convey the real tension and infallibility of the humans who had the world in their hands for those few days. This is an almost timeless portrait of men – literally, as this is as boys-own as American history itself – under diplomatic fire.
The casting for the most part is excellent, and this is important given the emphasis on character at the expense of action. As JFK, Bruce Greenwood is complex rather than simply wonderful. He demonstrates a quiet integrity and humility but shows that he knows he can make mistakes too. The world is bigger than JFK, Bruce Greenwood’s JFK knows this, taking a backseat to the events that surround him. Steve Culp as Bobby Kennedy is very believable too.
The film’s major problem is Kevin Costner, who is too recognizable to be a sidekick to the lesser known actors playing the Kennedy brothers. His role is at once too small (he’s a mere political advisor) and too big (as a mere political advisor, it’s unlikely he’d really have had the influence he does in this film). Not only does Costner throw the narrative off balance; his prominent role in Oliver Stone’s JFK simply makes it odd that he has turned up here as the President’s advisor.
The subplot of Kenneth’s family is thin and hardly a welcome diversion from the tense moments in the office; and the arbitrary occasional shifts to black and white film are superfluous. But there are few gimmicks in this drama, which makes for a satisfying film that, while conventional, conveys a moment in history with suitable aplomb. As the military’s moves were Kennedy’s language, so this film is the language of an era.