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Thirteen Days

  thirteen days
Steven Culp, Bruce Greenwood, and Kevin Costner contemplate nuclear war before taking a light lunch in the Rose Garden.

2000, New Line Cinema
All Rights Reserved

The best film Oliver Stone never made. "Thirteen Days" (IMDb listing) tells the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the one time in our nation's history when we came to the brink of nuclear war. Seen through the eyes of President John F. Kennedy's top aid, Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), "Days" is that rare combination of cold hard facts, engrossing fiction, and heartbreakingly accomplished entertainment.

More than just a history lesson, "Thirteen Days" attempts to give the audience portraits of legendary American political figures as flawed humans. Humans who were genuinely unsure of how to deal with such a potentially devastating conflict as the one that brewed in Cuba more than 30 years ago. History doesn't bother to humanize those it immortalizes, and I applaud "Days" for not taking the antiseptic approach to this story — To not make John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and O'Donnell into he-men who knew their next move before they even thought it. "Days" suggests that these were strident family men. Religious men. Men who knew just what was at stake for the country.

The John F. Kennedy presented in "Thirteen Days" is not the hard-charging, Catholic president known today. "Days" gives us a frightened Kennedy who opposes conflict both morally and professionally. He relies on his aids O'Donnell and his brother Bobby to help him with the decisions. Also, in Oliver Stone fashion, "Days" shows us the animosity between the old guard Republican defense administration and Kennedy's younger, decidedly Democratic regime.

As the two Kennedys, Bruce Greenwood (JFK) and Steven Culp (a brilliant Bobby Kennedy) create three-dimensional characters from historical facts. They deepen the myths that surround this powerful duo with fine performances. Both actors also conquer that Herculean task of pulling off the northeastern accent ("I'm gawing to Haavad Paaayk") that so easily draws attention to itself. The same cannot be said of Kevin Costner, who struggles with an accent that just isn't in him to master. He tries, and you do get used to it, but his initial five minutes of dialog are brutal and giggle-inducing.

Directed by Roger Donaldson, "Thirteen Days" is sparkling entertainment provided by a helmer that has crafted some superb thrillers in his career ("No Way Out"). "Days" is not history, but more of a Hollywood dramatization of the true events. Donaldson uses a blend of black-and-white and color photography to separate the facts from the fiction. An inventive choice that helps the film from seeming simply like a recap and also helps us to understand that "Days" is not an entirely accurate film.

For many, "Thirteen Days" will seem like a return to form for Kevin Costner. While I believe that "Days" is Costner's best performance in some time, I refuse to turn my back on the actor's solid work in films like "Message in a Bottle" and the criminally underrated "For Love of the Game." Reteaming with his "No Way Out" director Donaldson, hip-deep again in Kennedy material that served him so well in Oliver Stone's "JFK," and working from the airtight script by David Self, Costner has very little chance of failure. His Kenny O'Donnell is not a puppet master behind JFK, but more of a loyal friend with a sworn allegiance to his nation and his old buddy Jack Kennedy. It's enlightening to see Costner still so capable of holding the audience's attention.

A gigantic 90-million-dollar Hollywood production, "Thirteen Days" delivers on almost every level. Running just under 150 minutes, it is rarely slow. When the acting strays into daytime soap levels, it's quickly roped back in. And even though any grade-school kid knows the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis, "Days" manages to remain suspenseful to the very end. That shows you the quality of the filmmaking on display here.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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