For all the gnashing divisiveness that has dominated the presidential election crisis, one opinion about it appears to be relatively universal: The ugly briar patch of claims, counterclaims, and arcane court strategies will produce a winner far more than it will a leader. Leadership — noble, valiant, seductive — is the missing presence, the great ghost, in our current oversaturated frenzy of political/legal/media noise. The public hunger for it is as palpable as it is impotent, and that yearning lends an unexpected frisson of zeitgeist excitement to Thirteen Days, a big, square, rousing political-thriller docudrama that traces the seismic backroom maneuvers of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Directed by Roger Donaldson (No Way Out), from a script by David Self, the film lays out, with a vast and engrossing urgency and detail, that perilous moment in October 1962 when the United States and the Soviet Union dared to look each other in the nuclear eye, engaging in the ultimate game of Cold War chicken. The result is a gripping glorification of what real leadership is all about.
Thirteen Days, which is set to go into limited release on Dec. 25, unfurls a large and volatile cast of characters, from the owlish Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker) to the dove-ish U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp) to presidential aide Kenneth P. O’Donnell — played, in a rare quasi-backseat performance, by Kevin Costner. But the film’s ultimate impact is rooted in the mind and spirit of one man. His name is John F. Kennedy, and, as portrayed — wonderfully — by the Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood, he seems to loom up out of the past, with both the stature of legend and the present-tense cut and sweat of humanity, to dwarf the petty, self-serving ersatz outrage of Al Gore and George W. Bush. In Thirteen Days, we watch as JFK, drawing on every fiber of his intellect, his Machiavellian cunning, and his courage, averts a nuclear war even as he stares into the abyss of its possibility, and there’s virtually no way to experience the movie — at least, in the present climate — without wondering what either of the two current candidates might have done in the same situation. The scenarios that dance in your head would be Saturday Night Live funny if they weren’t so scary.
A number of previous actors, of course, have had a go at JFK, but most of them have been like William Devane in The Missiles of October — overplaying the New England accent, reciting every line as if they were seated in the Oval Office in front of a TelePrompter, with that ”Mawy…fellow…Americans” pomp. Greenwood, by contrast, has a slightly anonymous, blank-slate quality. He cuts down on the dry Boston vowels, and he captures how the authoritative essence of JFK’s charisma grew out of a virile tension between what he did and didn’t express. Outfitted in a regal helmet of swept hair, with sculpted bow lips and eyes that gleam like polished stones (they seem to be staring right through whomever he’s talking to), Greenwood is hardly a dead ringer for Kennedy, but he looks just enough like him to allow the audience to relax into the illusion and to focus less on physiognomy than on the soothing, quick-snap command of his voice, which the actor nails with greater subtlety than anyone before him, and on the war of options jostling around inside his head.
As Thirteen Days presents it, JFK, from the moment he sees the top secret U2 photographs confirming the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, is caught between two tactical and philosophical views. A World War II veteran (the film never patronizes us by milking his heroism), he’s smart — and tough — enough to know that the Soviets respond only to hardball, and so he demands that the missiles be removed. And yet he’s too compassionate to play hardball with his countrymen’s lives. As the days wear on, the Joint Chiefs of Staff push for more and more aggression, and Kennedy deduces that they are, in fact, using the crisis as an excuse to detonate. They want to go to war, and this sets Kennedy alone, a doomsday chess player jockeying with both the Russians and his own military advisers. He’s the first U.S. president who is simultaneously a cold warrior and a new-era liberal humanist, and it’s out of this complex tangle of moral sympathies that he navigates, day by day, his course of action, tucking do-or-die bravado inside the velvet glove of restraint.
At 2 hours and 15 minutes, Thirteen Days offers an unrelieved dose of early-’60s white men standing around in rooms, talking. There are a few vivid, zooming action moments, as U.S. surveillance jets rocket over hostile Cuban skies, and some of the film’s flaws are easy enough to flick away — like Costner’s own overcooked accent, which doesn’t stop him from giving a solid performance as JFK’s Harvard-Irish assistant/confidant. Yet there’s a nagging repetitiveness to the one-day-after-another structure (it’s not as if we don’t know how it all came out). Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Thirteen Days doesn’t dig deep enough past the immediate situation and into the personalities of the figures on screen. In particular, the movie asserts and then fails to establish the ruthlessness of Robert Kennedy. It’s too intent on romanticizing Camelot to portray, with true drama (and accuracy), the good cop/bad cop strategy that JFK and his brother employed. To object to the film’s portrait of JFK, however, one would have to be mired in the age of nonleadership to the point of forgetting that America had ever been anyplace else. A-