Monday, March 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Thirteen Days' (2000)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

The kind of movie that would probably go direct to HBO these days, Thirteen Days is a solid if occasionally hokey account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, depicting the political maneuvering in the White House among President John F. Kennedy's team of advisers. In particular, it focuses on Ken O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), a longtime Kennedy associate whose steady clear-headedness is portrayed as the secret weapon holding the White House team together. In reality, that may not have been the case (sources seem to disagree on how important O'Donnell really was), but it works for the movie, giving the audience an everyman character to identify with who isn't one of the most famous politicians in American history.

Even those famous politicians, brothers John and Robert Kennedy (played by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, respectively), come across as grounded and real, relatively young men who find themselves in charge of an entire country and responsible for keeping it from being consumed by nuclear war. The movie portrays the warmongering American military leaders as nearly as much of a danger as the Soviets, eager to push the country into war at every provocation. Thanks to counsel from O'Donnell and from his brother, Kennedy holds the line, and his confrontations with seasoned military commanders (who are older than him and clearly consider themselves wiser) are thrilling to watch.

The movie is a pretty engrossing procedural even when it isn't filled with tension, showing how various officials perform their duties during a crisis that lasts nearly two weeks (hence the title), and how recent presidential appointees mesh with career military and political officials. One of the movie's best moments comes as U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), a veteran of multiple failed presidential campaigns and a relic of the country's political past, prepares for a showdown with the Soviet U.N. ambassador, and Robert Kennedy anticipates pulling Stevenson out because he doesn't have the spine to stand up to the Soviets. But Stevenson comes through in a big way, proving that the generations of patriots can work together for a common cause. It's a rousing and effective message that seems almost quaint in the current political climate.

Costner is solid as O'Donnell, although he lays on the Boston accent perhaps a little too thickly. And while it's a smart choice to build the movie around a relatable guy, the scenes between O'Donnell and his wife and kids are all dreadfully cheesy, hammering home the idea that the idyllic home life of Americans could be destroyed in an instant if the government didn't find a way to avert nuclear war. The stakes are clear enough in the high-level political meetings without the blatant tugging on the heartstrings. Still, the sentimental scenes (including some inspirational moments with military pilots) are minimal, and they're outweighed by the smartly written political maneuvering. If it were made for HBO now, Thirteen Days would probably win a ton of Emmys, instead of barely making a dent at the box office as it did when it was released theatrically.

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