Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

With its minute-by-minute account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days returns to the era when men were men—and specifically, presidents were presidents—and movies were movies. Crisp, coiled, and functional, director Roger Donaldson’s Cold War procedural forgoes the hysteria of either Dr. Strangelove (which was made a year after Cuban-based missiles didn’t destroy Washington) or JFK (another Kevin Costner vehicle, but one that approached the Kennedy myth with rather more paranoia). It’s also a timely warning about the military’s intelligence at a moment when our next president seems prepared to make the White House an annex of the Pentagon.

Ideologically, the story’s heroes are the Kennedys—Bobby (Steven Culp) as much as John (Bruce Greenwood). The film portrays them as a canny, cautious tag team that outflanks a pack of military zealots whose loosest cannon is (no surprise here) Gen. Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway). Formally, however, the protagonist is Kenny O’Donnell, who was only JFK’s appointments secretary but whose importance to Donaldson’s version of the tale is immediately established: O’Donnell is introduced before the president, and he’s played by Kevin Costner (also one of the movie’s co-producers), whose obtrusive Boston accent only slightly masks his essential Costnerishness.

Thirteen Days takes its name from Bobby Kennedy’s brief 1967 account—80 pages in its current paperback edition—of the crisis, in which O’Donnell is mentioned only twice, both times in passing. But screenwriter David Self also drew on published transcripts of Oval Office conversations, in which O’Donnell played a bigger role. Still, his place in the film is clearly more conceptual than historical: He’s the regular guy, earnest, street-smart, and with everything to lose if Washington and its environs are vaporized. The movie’s cozy domestic scenes turn on O’Donnell’s wife and kids, not on Jackie, Caroline, and John-John.

From a contemporary perspective, O’Donnell’s pre-eminence may seem a little odd. He is, after all, an unblinking supporter and political hack, concerned with image more than substance—a sort of James Carville in an era when the help still kept a low profile. O’Donnell barks about the importance of loyalty and warns that Press Secretary Pierre Salinger (Kelly Connell) should be kept out of the loop. Yet he also plays a major (and probably inflated) role in recognizing the rashness of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and in brokering a world-saving compromise. When he drives Bobby Kennedy to the State Department for a crucial meeting, O’Donnell is asked, “Who are you?” “The friend,” he replies—but we know he’s so much more.

One of Costner’s career-making roles was in No Way Out, the Australian-born Donaldson’s second U.S. film—and second tale of American political corruption, after Marie. Thirteen Days takes a very different tone. Although we’ve long known that JFK was just as partial to extracurricular sex as No Way Out’s corrupt secretary of defense, here he’s all business. Donaldson and Self picture the White House much the way it was portrayed in 1962, as a place of curt efficiency, high purpose, and quiet heroism. Although the movie ultimately turns on knowing about Vietnam—the United States can “run the table” on the Russians in Southeast Asia, the president’s advisers exult after Khrushchev agrees to remove Soviet nukes from Cuba—it excludes not only JFK’s sex life but also such relevant peccadilloes as his scheme to kill Castro.

Khrushchev never actually appears in Thirteen Days, which depicts the crisis as an inside-the-Beltway event. Although it includes a few scenes of Cuba, the movie unfolds primarily at the White House, the Pentagon, and similar locales. On its one foray to New York, the film depicts another verbal clash in another desk-filled room: the triumphant confrontation between Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman) and Soviet U.N. Ambassador Valerian Zorin (Oleg Vidov), whose coy responses to questions about missiles in Cuba are upstaged by Stevenson’s unveiling of surveillance photos of…missiles in Cuba. (This actually happened, although in his account, Bobby Kennedy admitted that the first aerial photos of missile sites looked to him and his brother “to be no more than the clearing of a field for a farm or the basement of a house.”)

Tellingly, the other major faceoff is between Americans. In an anxious situation room, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker) commands an unruly admiral not to fire warning shots at a Soviet tanker. The moral is clear: The Kennedys and a few other wise men—including Stevenson, who prefaces his unpopular but wise opposition to invading Cuba by calling himself a “coward”—stood between two equally reckless military elites. This is apparently the official position of the Kennedy cult; in his 1999 foreword to Thirteen Days’ current edition, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes that an American invasion of Cuba—which the Joint Chiefs of Staff had ardently advocated—would have guaranteed nuclear war and that the Kennedys negotiated “a narrow escape from oblivion.”

This thesis may be oversimplified, but Thirteen Days embodies it credibly. Greenwood and especially Culp remarkably resemble the men they portray, both in appearance and manner, but so do such minor players as Baker, Fairman, and Walter Adrian (who plays LBJ). The evocation of Washington in 1962, seemingly placid but actually on the brink, is as authentic as the green-and-orange design of the D.C. Transit bus glimpsed in an early sequence. Until Trevor Jones’ end-title music hints at the love theme from Titanic, only the reassuring presence of Kevin Costner reminds us that it’s only a movie. CP