Movies that recreate a past event do a service for the current filmgoer in providing a history lesson. The lesson here depicts an event that threatened the United States with nuclear bombardment -- nothing less! It also established John F. Kennedy as a leader with the qualities to outmaneuver a bombastic, power hungry Russian leader in October 1962, the height of the cold war. This was an event with enough high drama to sustain a motion picture.
But, oddly, it was a hard sell to the studios. Wisely, they felt that history itself wouldn't be enough to attract an audience large enough to make some profit in the endeavor. So it was that the film project didn't get going until a major star came into the package as actor and producer, and a few alterations to the historical record came in to massage the dramatic elements.
The effect is to make one wonder at the re-creation and the depictions of character and circumstance "Thirteen Days" offers. The most egregious alteration is the character of Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner) who may have been a childhood chum of the Kennedy's but was not so intimately involved in the decision making as Costner's film would have us believe. He was not one of the 14 members of the Executive Committee ("Ex-Comm") of the National Security Council that sat in deliberation with the president as he took on Nikita Kruschev and the Russians assembling nuclear missiles in Cuba. Somehow, the signature Costner indulgence seems to pervade the movie drama in a way that reality didn't.
Be that as it may, we are lead through the story by producer Costner as a participant and as a narrator all the way to a final scene focusing enduringly on him as he goes deep in a prolongued moment of irony and introspection, reflecting on what might have been and what the U.S. just avoided because of Kennedy's leadership. As Richard Reeves, writer of "President Kennedy: Profile of Power" said, "Kevin Costner saved the world and lived to tell about it" (L.A. Times, 1/16/01).
No, "Thirteen Days" is not primarily about Costner as Kenny O'Donnell. The historical drama is really driven by John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) as he reacts to the discovery of missile sites near our shores as disclosed by high altitude U-2 spy plane photographs and as Russian diplomats lie through their teeth about it. We see Kennedy consulting his advisors and his brother Robert F. (Steven Culp) as he plays the chess game with his antagonists.
There was strong disagreement among his advisors. And, while the film portrays the military as falsely overeager and conniving for war, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, (Kevin Conway) who is depicted here as a member of the Executive Committee but was not, did indeed argue in favor of nuking Cuba. What a different history might have been written if we had gone along with this hawk. But, Kennedy actually walked out of a Lemay briefing, ignoring his counsel. Cooler heads prevailed.
Another strange characterization chosen by the filmmakers is to portray Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman) as another member of the Executive Committee (he was not) and as a feared weakling as our United Nations representative who would respond to the lies put forward before that body by Andrei Gromyko, the conniving Russian representative, as he attempted to misinform the world. There is no evidence in the historical record that anyone considered Stevenson a weakling, intellectually or otherwise, and the response he gave was decisive.
Costner, Greenwood and Culp assay the well-known Kennedy high-boston accent, a somewhat diverting choice. While it may take some effort to ignore or accept, it's probably better to make the picture of these men as complete as possible, accent and all.
One of the traps of a movie look-back on events is including a perspective available only in hindsight, knowledge which tends to distort the story as it unfolded in real time. This feeds into the worse tendency of altering details, facts, characters for a perceived improvement in the drama for a modern audience. After all, this is a story about men in suits having a series of intense conversations. It's not surprising that the writers felt they needed to jazz the threat and internal conflicts up enough to engage the audience.
We'll always have these problems with historical films intended for the commercial marketplace. But, as in many such cases, it's better to have them than not. This reminder of one of the dark periods in our very recent history is much more desirable to the thinking filmgoer than another "Ishtar" or "Elm Street". Despite its liberties, there is enough history in "Thirteen Days" to make it well worth seeing.
Estimated cost: $85,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $33,000,000.