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Friday, Dec. 29, 2000


All of the president's nightmares

Thirteen has always been an unlucky number, and that's no exception for "Thirteen Days," the new political thriller dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This film's jinx was largely in the casting of their big-name star, namely Kevin Costner, who puts in yet another off-key and self-aggrandizing performance. Bit of a shame, really, because it rather unfairly obscures some far better turns by Bruce Greenwood ("Exotica") and Steven Culp in the roles of John Fitzgerald and Robert Kennedy.

Costner plays Kenneth O'Donnell, special assistant to President Kennedy (Greenwood), a trusted political adviser and handler who finds himself in the thick of things as the crisis unfolds, trying to steer a course between the hardline hawks of the Pentagon and the risk of World War III. When a U2 spy plane films a Soviet missile pad under construction in Cuba, JFK finds himself with mere days to act before this Soviet nuclear threat to the Americas became a fait accompli.

People like former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the Pentagon chiefs of staff resented Kennedy for not fully backing the Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow Castro in Cuba, and they were determined to force a full-scale bombing and invasion upon him the second time around.

Kennedy, on the other hand, felt that he had been burned politically and misadvised on the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He was determined not to act rashly, and to depend on the advice of those closest to him: his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Culp), Special Counsel Robert Sorensen and O'Donnell.

In the Cabinet, the consensus was for a quick strike before the missiles were operational; only UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson counseled restraint and attempts at a diplomatic solution. Talk of Munich and the prewar appeasement of Nazi Germany was rampant, and the mood was that it was time to draw the line on Russian expansion.

Kennedy harbored doubts, though: When informed by Acheson that a U.S. strike on Cuba will surely draw a Soviet response against Berlin, the president asks, "So what's the next step?"

"We hope that cooler heads prevail," Acheson replies, leaving O'Donnell to point out the obvious.

"Call me Irish," O'Donnell says, "but cooler heads don't prevail."

"Thirteen Days" captures the Cold War pressures and competing world views that came to a head during this crisis, and presents the events clearly and with a minimum of hyperbole. Actually, none was needed. Talk to anyone who lived during that period and they'll tell you the fear that the missiles could fly was real.

The only real misstep here is Costner: O'Donnell is another of Costner's reliably good liberal family men who save the day, and he gets more than his fair share of earnest monologues, which might be OK if it weren't for his atrociously exaggerated and just plain wrong take on a Boston accent. The decision to make O'Donnell the central character is a curious one, as it was JFK who called the shots. An educated guess would be that some smart casting director managed to convince Costner that he didn't look remotely like JFK, so they wrote him a new role.

It's to be expected, but "Thirteen Days" bears the same uniformly American perspective that Hollywood is feeding the global market these days. (Hearts and minds, indeed.) Any sort of nonbiased reading of the situation runs into a huge double standard at the core of the issue: While the U.S. was insisting, to the point of risking war, that the U.S.S.R. could not base missiles in "America's backyard," the U.S. had already done the same by placing nukes in Turkey, on the U.S.S.R. border. Removal of these missiles was eventually the quid pro quo that allowed the matter to be resolved peaceably. So JFK's great act of peacemaking was to actually restore the balance of terror.

In its favor, "Thirteen Days" is a good illustration of the importance of civilian control over the military. If left to the hawks (and we shouldn't really blame them, aggression is their job) there would have been numerous opportunities for this crisis to spin out of control. One wrong shot could have triggered a rapidly escalating conflagration, and it's interesting to see how Kennedy bypassed the top brass in the Pentagon and maintained direct phone links with the commanders of the blockading naval armada. As such, the film supports a solidly liberal agenda, and somewhat reinforces the (debatable) thesis driven home in Oliver Stone's "JFK" that it was Kennedy's dovish tendencies -- and his antagonism of the hard right -- that led to his assassination.

In the end, though, "Thirteen Days" kind of misses the point. After realizing just how narrowly war has been averted, O'Donnell gazes at a beautiful dawn and tells his wife "Every day the sun comes up says something about us."

Of course, the counterpoint is that every day we live in fear that it won't says volumes about us as well, and four decades on from this brink of thermonuclear war, the risk is still as present as ever.

"Thirteen Days" is playing at Shinjuku Joy Cinema and other theaters.

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