It's always useful to revisit the moments of great world drama, and certainly the thirteen days of the Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962 qualify for the list. Just as people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot a year later, many of us remember the terror of anticipating nuclear annihilation. a terror that lasted for day after day after exhausting day, as the world came its closest ever to a man-made cataclysm.
"Thirteen Days" is a (fairly) honest attempt to take us through the crisis as it looked from inside the White House, with Presidential assistant Kenneth O'Donnell (Kevin Costner) as our eyes and ears. The film has the virtue of not rewriting history to make O'Donnell a star, or even a major protagonist; but, looking for drama, it puts him in situations and confrontations that in real life would never have allowed him to be present.
Nevertheless, Roger Donaldson's direction keeps things humming, as both the president and the Pentagon, initially clueless, try to figure out first, what's happening, second, what it means, third, what to do about it, and fourth, what it says about the very mysterious Kremlin and Khrushchev. Oddly, there is barely a mention of Fidel Castro and the fact that Cuba is supposedly a sovereign nation with an obvious stake in any actions the U.S. or the Soviet Union may take.
What is happening, of course, is that an American U-2 plane has photographed Soviet intermediate-range guided missiles at possible launch sites in Cuba, with a range that could take them as far as Washington, D.C. Although in the film, and in reality, this was perceived as an imminent threat to the country, in fact Khrushchev's quite logical justification for the move was that this was an appropriate response to the United States having set up great numbers of its own missiles in Turkey, along the Soviet Union's southern border. This fact is not even mentioned in the film until near the end, when in a back-channel attempt at resolution, the president offers to remove those missiles -- in six months -- on the condition that Khrushchev not say a word about it.
Okay; we've gotten the politics out of the way, and can deal with the film. Boston accents wobble all over the place as uncharismatic actors (Bruce Greenwood as JFK and Steven Culp as RFK) try to play up to their models. Costner's attempt at a Boston accent is so heavy it sits like a load of Irish potatoes on top of every line, except when he forgets it completely, usually under stress. There is a good deal of machismo by the Joint Chiefs, whose mantra for each of the thirteen days seems to be 'Attack!' And Greenwood as JFK is good at showing us how the president kept slowing things down before they got too far out of hand, until he found a way to defuse the crisis.
There's some excellent footage, well edited, of the missile sites, and of flyovers by U.S. pilots. The endless discussions and arguments in the White House and the Pentagon are handled with good tension, as the two camps, trying to make policy and take action, keep moving toward first a collision and then a resolution. The blockade of Soviet ships on their way to Cuba is also shown in a series of beautifully done documentary-like scenes, perhaps the best sequences in the film.
As someone who remembers the crisis very well -- I spent hours trying not to blink, so that I would see the nuclear flash before it killed me -- I'm glad to be reminded of that frightening time, even by a film as imperfect as this one.