For thirteen days in 1962, from October 16 through October 28, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war as the United States and the Soviet Union stood toe-to-toe, neither bending, each waiting for the other to blink. Despite public assurances to the United States that no offensive weapons would be placed on Cuban soil, the Soviets deployed 40 medium range ballistic missiles there, each of which could reach as far as 1000 miles away while carrying a 3 Megaton payload. Within five minutes of a full launch, 80 million Americans could be killed. To political observers, this act represented a shift in Soviet military philosophy from a deterrent position to one of first strike - a situation that the United States could not allow to go unchecked. So began a tense standoff, with President Kennedy issuing an ultimatum that he backed up with a naval blockade of Cuba. In the end, as history records it, the USSR backed down and World War III was averted. Employing a script by David Self, director Roger Donaldson opens a window into the behind-the-scenes backstabbing and brinkmanship that went into ending the Cuban Missile Crisis. Like The Contender, Thirteen Days works because it gives the viewer a fly-on-the-wall's perspective of events that change the trajectory of history. In the case of The Contender, the scenario was fictional; for Thirteen Days, it is largely factual. Nevertheless, in large part because both offer such an intimate view of the side of politics that is hidden from the average citizen, there is a great deal of synergy between the films.
To many people living today, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a footnote on page 550 in a high school history text book. By the time Ronald Reagan assumed the greatest role of his career, the Soviet Union was in its terminal phase, with its economy collapsing faster than a rotten railroad overpass during an earthquake. Throughout the '80s and into the '90s, the potential of a nuclear holocaust became increasingly remote. The fact of life that everyone lived with during the '50s, '60s, and '70s now seems as remote as a barely recalled childhood nightmare. So the trick for Thirteen Days is to paint a vivid enough portrait to stir memories in those who lived through the events of October 1962 and to involve those born after that date.
It is often difficult to dramatize recent historical events because nearly everyone going into the theater already knows the outcome. The world did not end with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Disaster was averted with almost no loss of life, and the United States was the "winner" (insofar as there can be a winner in this situation). What's more, Thirteen Days is constructed as a thriller, which means that its intent is to arouse the audience's interest by creating suspense. And, while this movie is not as successful as Apollo 13 in generating tension, it does a credible job. And that's a solid endorsement for a motion picture of this sort - it kept me intrigued and involved even though I knew how it all ended.
Thirteen Days presents a dramatized (i.e., somewhat fictionalized) view from the top. The three main characters are JFK (Bruce Greenwood), RFK (Steven Culp), and Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner). Who? If you haven't heard of O'Donnell, you're not alone. He may have lived in Camelot, but its mystique did not enshrine him. O'Donnell went to Harvard with Bobby Kennedy, worked for JFK's Senate and Presidential campaigns, then became a special advisor to the President with an office next door to the Oval Office. He was definitely in Kennedy's inner circle. However, his role in the crisis appears to have been beefed up to give star Kevin Costner more screen time and greater importance. It is unlikely that some of the decisions and actions attributed to O'Donnell in this movie actually occurred in real life. Indeed, while O'Donnell's character was included to give some "b
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