Thirteen Days [DVD]
Screenplay : David Self
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Kevin Costner (Kenny O'Donnell), Bruce Greenwood (John F. Kennedy), Steven Culp (Robert F. Kennedy), Dylan Baker (Robert McNamara), Henry Strozier (Dean Rusk), Frank Wood (McGeorge Bundy), Len Cariou (Dean Acheson), Janet Coleman (Evelyn Lincoln), Stephanie Romanov (Jacqueline Kennedy)
In a lean, tense two and a half hours, Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days tells the story of the inner workings in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most severe political moments of the 20th century and likely the closest the world has ever come to engaging in actual nuclear exchange. The script by David Self condenses and dramatizes some 23 hours of recorded meetings and telephone calls in the Oval Office as transcribed by historians Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow in their 1997 book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The exact fidelity to historical events maintained by Thirteen Days will be for the historians to debate. Essentially, it maintains the basic elements and timeline of the crisis. In October 1962, in the middle of his Presidency and less than a month before Congressional elections, John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) was presented with surveillance photographs of a sudden and massive build-up in Cuba of short-range nuclear missiles by the Soviet Union. Within mere weeks of being fully operational, these missiles were pointed directly at the U.S. and had the capability of striking just about every major city short of Seattle, Washington, in less than five minutes.
The majority of Thirteen Days consists of stressful meetings between Kennedy, his special assistant and political advisor, Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), his trusted brother and attorney general, Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp), and various military advisors. The Joint Chiefs of Staff want to take immediate and drastic measures: Attack the missile sites with strategic air strikes and then invade Cuba and take control from Fidel Castro.
Kennedy senses the immediate problems with this scenario: The Soviet Union will simply retaliate by wrenching control of West Berlin away from the Allied forces and setting up yet another stand-off that could culminate in nuclear war. Still smarting from the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion a year and a half earlier, Kennedy is particularly wary of quick military action and the promises of guaranteed military success. You can see in his eyes that he's heard those claims before.
The film ultimately works because of its focus. David Self's script and the tight, unwavering direction by Roger Donaldson (Dante's Peak, No Way Out) keeps your attention on a few major characters and the difficult decisions with which they are faced. There a few moments when the script tries to shoehorn in scenes between Costner's character and his family, but these don't work largely because, with nuclear war hanging in the balance, it's hard to care about his nondescript relationship with his wife and five kids. The fact that their minimal screen time keeps them hazy and distant as characters doesn't help. I suppose the intention was to visualize the cost of nuclear war--not the death of politicians and military men who would conceivably be afforded protection in mountain bunkers, but the deaths of ordinary citizens, mothers and children.
Still, these scenes are few and far between, and the majority of the narrative remains tightly centered on the Kennedys and both their military stand-off with the Soviet Union and their ideological and political duels with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The film makes clear that it is not just a battle of wills between the United States and Cuba; it also a battle between the White House and the military advisors who are anxious to fight.
This leads to complex tactics within the U.S. government, such as O'Donnell's plea to fighter pilots not to tell that their planes were fired upon in Cuba lest the Joint Chiefs use that aggression as the excuse they need to launch a war. And, at least for the first six days, all of this must be done in absolute secrecy so the press doesn't catch wind of it and the Soviets don't figure out the American government is on to them.
With taut exposition and a thoughtful lack of stylistic frills (with the exception of the Oliver Stone-like switching between color and black-and-white film stock at various moments), the film makes abundantly clear what the stakes of the game are. Even as the scenario changes drastically from day to day, sometimes hour to hour, we are always aware of what is at stake and just how precarious the situation is at all levels.
Moments that seem like victory, such as an apparently successful naval blockade of all incoming ships to Cuba, can quickly turn sour. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev offers a deal that apparently ends the crisis, it is followed only hours later by another message that apparently rescinds the deal. This is further complicated by a textual analysis that suggests that Khrushchev didn't even write the second message. Was their an overnight coup, or did Khrushchev just change his mind?
Kevin Costner gets first billing and is the "star" of the film, but his is actually a sideline character intended mainly to offer advice and act as one of President Kennedy's many consciences (which makes the family scenes with his character seem all the more extraneous). The real stars of the film are the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert, who are accurately and movingly portrayed by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp.
Greenwood's performance suggests Kennedy's tactical smarts and human compassion, as well as his fallibility. Kennedy is certainly portrayed as a great President--a man of strong nerve and even stronger understanding that he holds in his hand the potential deaths of millions of people--but the film is not overly glorifying. He has his moments of weakness and outbursts of anger. After all, he is only human.
Robert Kennedy is played by Steven Culp, whose similar features and uncanny vocal imitations were first developed when he played the same character on the cable movie Norma Jean and Marilyn. Culp is equally outstanding in his role as the Kennedy brother often described as the "brilliant and ruthless" one. Robert Kennedy is even tougher than his brother, and it is small wonder that it is he who is chosen to broker the final deal with the Soviet ambassador. Yet, Culp still brings the requisite humanity to the role, and in a conversation with Costner's character only moments before the final showdown, he admits that he hates the pressure of being labeled the "brilliant and ruthless" brother.
In his role as Kenny O'Donnell, Costner brings the same decent, intelligent forcefulness that he brought to his roles as other government agents in The Untouchables (1987) and JFK (1991). O'Donnell is frank and experienced, and he doesn't mind telling President Kennedy exactly what he thinks, even if it flies in the face of the President's opinion (there is one particularly harsh sequence when he tells Robert Kennedy the stupidity of their idea to leak to the press the notion that the U.S. might trade their missiles in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba). The only problem with Costner's performance is that it is often hampered by an atrocious Bah-ston accent that borders on the edge of parody, especially when compared to the restrained vocal inflections Greenwood and Culp bring to their Kennedy roles.
All told, Thirteen Days is a powerful political thriller that is all the more unnerving because it is based in truth. We may never know exactly how intense was the pressure inside the White House for those two weeks when a few dozen men made decisions to avoid a catastrophe that could have literally led to the end of the world. Nevertheless, Thirteen Days brings us as close as a movie can, and in the process leaves us with a newfound admiration for the men and women who make the kinds of decisions that most of us cannot even fathom.
|Thirteen Days infinfilm DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Roger Donaldson, writer David Self, actor/producer Kevin Costner, producer Armyan Bernstein, executive producer Michael De Luca, and visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister |
Historical figures audio commentary
Historical information subtitle track
Nine deleted scenes with director's commentary
Bringing History to the Silver Screen 11-minute making-of documentary
Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis 48-minute historical documentary
Historical figures biographical gallery
Visual effects scene deconstruction
Original theatrical trailer
Cast and crew filmographies
|Distributor||New Line Home Entertainment|
|Thirteen Days is presented in a very well-done anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. The overall visual quality of the film is a bit hard to get a grasp on because it alternates frequently between new footage and archival stock footage that has been carefully restored and colorized. When I saw the film in theaters, I do not remember being as aware of the restored stock footage, which is testament to the clarity and sharpness of this DVD (although, in this case, it works somewhat against the movie because the filmmakers did not intend for the audience to be able to discern between the two kinds of footage). Color saturation is good throughout, as are black levels and flesh tones. Grain is virtually nonexistent, and there were no visual blemishes or compression artifacts to be found.|
|Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, the soundtrack on this disc is superb. Although much of the movie consists of face-to-face encounters with men in small rooms, the story often breaks away to more expansive sequences, including low-altitude information-gathering flights, scenes of the Cubans building the missile sites, and taut moments during the blockade standoff between American war ships and approaching Soviet tankers in the middle of the ocean. These scenes benefit greatly from the scope and expansion of the 5.1 channels and the deep, solid low end. Chapter 16, which includes the low-altitude flight, is especially impressive, with great directionality and imaging that makes you feel like the fighter jets are zipping right through your living room. Trevor Jones' subtle, but engaging musical score also sounds excellent.|
| Thirteen Days is the debut release of New Line's new infinifilm series, which offers a clever interface that allows the viewer to engage with the supplements while watching the movie. It's really not that complicated, which is what makes it so great: If you choose to watch the infinifilm version of the movie (which, I should add, you should only do after you've seen the movie uninterrupted in its entirety), at various times a blue menu bar will appear along the bottom half of the screen with one or two supplement options that relate to the scene you're watching. By selecting one of the options, you are temporarily taken out of the movie and into the particular part of the supplement (the menu bar not only tells you what the supplement is, but also how long it runs). So, at a particular moment in the movie, it might offer you the chance to see a deleted scene that would have been inserted at that point or an explanation of a visual effects sequence. Or, while watching a scene with Bruce Greenwood playing John F. Kennedy, you might have the option to look at Greenwood's filmography or see a biographical sketch of Kennedy. This comes in particularly handy during the more in-depth political sequences, as you are often given the option to view a bit of the included historical documentary to fill in some of the gaps about what's going on. |
However, you don't have to engage the supplements in this fashion. The infinifilm DVD works like a regular DVD, as well, where you can watch the supplements separately. And there are a lot of supplements to go through, half of which illuminate the historical background of the Cuban Missile Crisis while the other half deals with the making of the movie. The supplements included on this disc were obviously labor-intensive to create, meaning that those who developed this project put a lot of thought into its design and what would be included, rather than just throwing together some deleted scenes and public-relations material and calling it a "Special Edition."
The disc includes not one, but two documentaries. The first, Bringing History to the Silver Screen, is an 11-minute making-of featurette that explores casting the movie, visual effects, and the recreation of the White House and other locations. The second documentary, The Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis, runs 48 minutes in length and is a fascinating and in-depth account of the crisis with input from a wide variety of credible sources, ranging from ABC news anchor Sam Donaldson, to Harvard professor Ernest R. May, to Sergei Khrushchev, son of then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Filled with archival footage and detailed accounts of the crisis, it provides a great contextual supplement to the movie.
Further historical information can be gleaned from the Historical Figures Biographical Gallery, which is divided into leaders, advisors, military, diplomats, and press. All of the key historical figures involved in the crisis are included here, and each is given a two- to three-minute segment that fleshes out his character through photographs, archival film clips, and interviews with scholars and experts. In addition to this, there is also a historical information subtitle track that offers bits of historical information while watching the movie. And, further, a commentary track is included that features archival audio clips of JFK, Robert McNamara, Kenny O'Donnell, as well as new interviews with Pierre Salinger and Sergei Khrushchev. And who said Hollywood couldn't be educational?
For those interested in the making of the movie itself, there is great screen-specific audio commentary by Roger Donaldson, writer David Self, actor/producer Kevin Costner, producer Armyan Bernstein, executive producer Michael De Luca, and visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister. Also included are nine deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Donaldson. A visual effects deconstruction uses the multi-angle feature to analyze the computer-generated jets in the low-altitude flight sequence from Chapter 16. Lastly, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer and cast and crew filmographies.
And, it should be mentioned that New Line has been good enough to put everything on this disc in anamorphic widescreen. Thus, when using the infinifilm version of the film, you can easily jump back and forth between the supplements and the movie without having to readjust the parameters on your TV if you have either a widescreen set or one with an anamorphic squeeze function. Bravo, New Line, bravo. Let's hope other studios follow this lead.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick