Thirteen Days – 1 star

Thirteen Days. No matter the gravity of the historical event, be it the assassination of JFK or the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kevin Costner raises the hard questions: “What the hell kind of accent is that? Did Jim Garrison and Kenny O’Donnell have speech impediments?”

As to the movie, Thirteen Days is the historically inaccurate drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis told through the eyes of former JFK advisor Kenny O’Donnell, who most historians agree was more of a gofer and pal than a policy force. While it is not unreasonable to inflate the involvement of a tertiary character in historical drama, if you’re going to make stuff up, then do it smart. Make O’Donnell from Delaware, so Costner doesn’t have to butcher an accent. And make him interesting. As written in Thirteen Days and played by Costner, O’Donnell is dull as dishwater, has poor political instincts and the temperment of a teen. Indeed, his primary motivation seems to be to have the Kennedys (as played by Bruce Greenwood and Stephen Culp) really, really like him (upon reflection, given the sycophancy surrounding the Kennedys, that motivation may be more in line with actual history than I surmised).

Blocky, uniform, anti-climactic, and predictable (it even uses black-and-white reverence to Camelot), you’d do much better with the classic teleplay The Missiles of October, which had William Devane as Jack and Martin Sheen as an angry, blustering Bobby.

“Cub-er, Cub-er, Cub -ah – er”

The only thing that recommends the film is Greenwood, who does a fine job conveying President Kennedy’s angst and his sense of isolation. Conversely, Culp’s Bobby Kennedy is portrayed as borderline stupid with impulse control issues.

Even when the film does pick up a little speed (after all, it is the story of the nation on the brink of nuclear holocaust), Costner’s O’Donnell re-enters with his domestic issues and bizarre elocution, to grind it to a halt.

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10 comments
  1. Cal said:

    I weirdly enjoy this movie, even given all the flaws you rightly enumerate.

    They chose O’Donnell because he was the right age for Costner, who couldn’t play the President. In fact, O’Donnell’s part in the action was actually mostly what Ted Sorenson did, according to MacNamara and a couple others–who was too young for Costner to play.

    The other thing that really annoys me about it is the portrayal of the military and the state personnel as Red-baiting chumps.

  2. Pincher Martin said:

    You identify the worst thing in the movie, which is Kevin Costner. He hogs the scenes with the more important players, butchers the Boston Irish accent, and emotes like some high school ham when the camera is left alone on him.

    But nearly everything else about the film worked. Remove Costner and you’d have a four-star picture.

  3. Pincher

    I didn’t find a lot of the ExComm meetings all that compelling, though I did think Greenwood was a very good JFK. And Cal’s point is solid. The military and the hawks were presented as the heavies. Kevin Conway as LeMay was particularly cartoonish. And Dylan Baker was a particularly lame McNamara (a great McNamara, by the way, is Alec Baldwin in HBO’s Paths of War). I just felt like this was a B picture cast.

  4. Cal said:

    I agree about Conway–just picking Conway to play LeMay means he’s going to be a bad guy. But then, Dean Acheson (played by Len Cariou) did indeed resign because he was furious that Kennedy didn’t bomb the Russian missile sites. But was Adlai really considered to be that much of a pussy?

    It was a TV cast, for the most part. But well-executed, so far as it went. The problem was with the script and the vision.

    All that said, I have to admit I watch the movie pretty much every time it comes on. I have no idea why, and I frankly snicker at myself for doing it.

  5. Pincher Martin said:

    I thought the movie did a much better job than “The Missiles of October” at putting the viewer in the early 1960s. I loved the quick introduction to the film showing how the intelligence-gathering of the Soviet missiles in Cuba was collected and disseminated. What a great way of putting the viewer into the era, and showing him the limits of how people understood the questions they had to deal with at the time.

    LeMay’s role as the heel was overdone, but it worked dramatically (although Costner putting himself physically between LeMay and the President in that one scene was annoying, completely unnecessary, and another example of Costner trying to hackishly steal a scene). I thought the fellow who played McNamara was pretty good. You need a bookworm-looking bully for that role and Baker fits.

    Most of the other bit players did their parts well — with the possible exception of the guy playing General Taylor — and I thought both of the actors playing the Kennedy brothers were very good when they were allowed to get out from under Costner’s shadow.

    This movie’s problem always come down to Costner, and it really has nothing to do with whether he’s playing O’Donnell or Sorenson. The problem is that he gets to talk as an equal to the president in too many of the scenes, and it feels wrong. He assumes an equal stature to the two Kennedys in the movies, when he should play a subordinate.

  6. Acheson was not a part of the administration. Kennedy just called on him regularly as a “wise man.” And the Kennedys, whose focus on manliness was almost pathoIogical, indeed considered Stevenson a massive pussy.

    I agree that it started off with a bang, and I agree that Costner was atrocious, but I also had problems with the Ex-Com meetings, which is really the meat of it if you can get past Costner. The meetings were stale and blocky, and the actors were thin. Dylan Baker struck me as an Undersecretary for Third World Trade, not McNamara, and his shrill confrontation with the admiral was way over the top.

    Again, if you like this sort of thing, I re-recommend “Paths of War” (I liked The Missiles of October, but it is a stage play, so it is a different kettle of fish).

    By the way, I just finished Frederick Kempe’s “Berlin 1961” which I highly recommend. Let’s hope Costner keeps his mitts of that one.

  7. Cal said:

    I know that Acheson wasn’t on his staff. He did resign from Ex-Comm (at least I remember reading that and Wikipedia agrees with me). Treating the hawks with respect would have made a much better movie.

  8. Pincher Martin said:

    I’ll take a look at “Paths of War”.

    (Does HTML work in the comments?)

  9. Cal said:

    Is Paths of War the one where Sutherland plays Clive Clifford or whatever, who had been against the war in policy meetings, and just when MacNamara had gotten everyone else to pull out, Clifford says “No, we can’t pull out”?

  10. Xmastime said:

    besides Costner’s pathetic “I wish I was a Kennedy brother!” schtick, hamfisting in that JFK would’ve read the Guns of August and applied it to the present situation always irked me. as in, I doubt it.

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