Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Thirteen Days (2000)

Thirteen Days is a polished ode to the Kennedy administration focusing on the titular fraught period in which America and Russia went toe to toe waiting to see who would blink first in the stand off that was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I watched this when it first came out and was bowled over by the phenomenal casting of Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp as John and Bobby Kennedy. Their performances here really help to raise Roger Donaldson's somewhat plodding film to something special, providing one of the most authentic, intelligent and attractive depiction of the Kennedy's 'Camelot'. To this day whenever I've seen Greenwood in films, I have to try and shake off the fact that, for me, he was Kennedy. 

It's just as well the film creates a satisfying depiction of 'Camelot' however, because it affords no perspective for Russia or Cuba. You could argue this makes the film extremely one sided (as well as bolstering the aforementioned favourable stance towards Kennedy's administration) but in a way it's fitting; conveying the complete inability to understand or know what is happening behind the Iron Curtain and their cavalier approach to Cuba in general. At a time when, if Kruschev wished to speak directly to Kennedy, he had to do so via messages over Radio Moscow, there's something quite authentic in this narrow and insular depiction.

My understanding of Thirteen Days on my original watch in 2000 was that this was a film that was a detailed and accurate - albeit dry -  depiction of the dilemma Kennedy faced in trying to avert WWIII, yet even the most basic research will tell you that history is bended to Hollywood's will here. The late 90s/early 00s saw Kevin Costner eager to break back into the big time after a series of flops like Waterworld and The Postman. Perhaps keen to capitalise on past glories, Costner chose to return to the subject matter of the 35th President of the United States of America (having already starred in Oliver Stone's applauded JFK) and set about creating a role for himself within the film helmed by the director who gave him a previous glory in No Way Out. He stars as Kenny O'Donnell, JFK's political advisor, but its true to say that in real life O'Donnell was an extremely minor figure in the EX-Comm committee set up to tackle the crisis. Hollywood and Costner's poetic licence panders to audience expectations by giving him a much greater role than the reality afforded; he's the all American man, with a Rockwell postcard family full of adoring children (though they introduce one as having bad grades on the report card he surreptitiously tries to get his father to sign off on, as if to say 'hey, no one's perfect') and a note of caution for every key scene. It's strikingly odd, not helped at all by Costner's inability to convince with a Boston accent. It's really a shame they didn't just focus on Greenwood and Culp's masterful recreations instead, but their names aren't box office right?

On a rewatch, Thirteen Days remains an interesting if flawed historical biopic. Despite arguably lacking the tension it truly requires, it remains a good insight into the pressures a president faced in keeping everyone alive, made all the more tragic when you consider his own premature and violent death a year later.

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