A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Thirteen Days” (2000) – The 20th Anniversary

In October 1962, an American U-2 spy plane secretly photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviet Union on the island of Cuba. The leaders of the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a tense, thirteen day political and military standoff over the installation of nuclear armed Soviet missiles in Cuba. The missiles, were placed just 90 miles from Florida and within striking distance of 80 million Americans. For those thirteen days there was a serious danger that the confrontation might result in a third and potentially devastating, world war.

The Cuban missile crisis was the closest we’ve come to a nuclear world war. Just as Soviet ships with more missiles moved toward Cuba, Kennedy told Nikita Khrushchev to remove them, or else. Kennedy had decided to place a naval blockade (or a ring of ships) around Cuba. The aim of this “quarantine,” as he called it, was to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. 

Kennedy demanded the removal of the missiles that were already there and the destruction of it’s sites. The world found themselves waiting for the outcome as Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy in which he offered to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for a promise by U.S. leaders not to invade Cuba. Then Walter Cronkite had the good news, announcing: “The Soviets had turned back”.

Historical events like the Cuban Missile Crisis were made for movies based on true events. While there are films that feature the event, surprisingly there isn’t more movies dedicated to the historical event. The most famous and most successful of films to feature the missile crisis is producer and star Kevin Costner’s political thriller “Thirteen Days” from 2000, which celebrates it’s 20th anniversary. 

Costner’s film carries the same title as the 1969 book “Thirteen Days” by former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, but is in fact based on the 1997 book, “The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis”, by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow. Costner’s film contains newly declassified information not available to any earlier film productions, but takes a greater dramatic license, particularly in its choice of having Kenneth O’Donnell as the films protagonist. O’Donnell was the political consultant, special assistant and appointments secretary to President Kennedy.

Adapted to the screen by screenwriter David Self, whose only writing credits include: Liam Neeson’s “The Haunting”, “Road To Perdition” and Benicio Del Toro’s “The Wolfman”. The film was directed by Roger Donaldson, who had his first big studio film in 1984’s “The Bounty” with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. Donaldson went on to release Tom Cruise’s criminally hated “Cocktail” (1988), “The Getaway” (from 1994, a remake of the Steve McQueen film starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger), “Species” (1995), “The Bank Job” (2008) and two films starring Pierce Brosnan “Dante’s Peak” from 1997 and 2014’s “The November Man”.

“Thirteen Days” was not the first film for Donaldson and Costner, who have worked together before, on 1987’s “No Way Out”. Costner starred as a naval officer assigned to the Pentagon who stumbles into a criminal cover-up. “No Way Out” was more of a traditional thriller, with sex and murders; this time the star and director find suspense in what’s essentially a deadly political chess game. Universal Pictures was originally set to make and release the film with director Phil Alden Robinson directing but shelved it as it neared production. 

Kevin Costner who serves as producer was able to reactivate interest in the project and get it released by New Line Cinema. Although I would have loved to have seen what Phil Alden Robinson would have done with the film, as this one would have been right up his wheelhouse. Robinson is best known for directing smart thrillers of this type, such as the Ben Affleck installment of the Jack Ryan franchise “The Sum Of All Fears”, the Robert Redford ensemble “Sneakers” and the Kevin Costner classic “Field Of Dreams”. In fact Kevin Costner had considered directing before handing the reins over to director Roger Donaldson.

“Thirteen Days” focuses on those thirteen extraordinary days in October 1962, where across the globe, people anxiously awaited the outcome of a possible nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. “Thirteen Days” captures the urgency, suspense and paralyzing chaos of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s an intelligent political thriller and I don’t use the term thriller lightly. 

Sure it’s a dialogue driven film with mostly talking heads in different rooms of the White House, but Donaldson and his editor Conrad Buff (who has edited films for James Cameron, M. Night Shyamalan and two previous films for Roger Donaldson), creates a tension that rivals classics like “12 Angry Men” or “Fail Safe”. Donaldson’s film serves as a based on true events history lesson but does it in the way of a thriller. While we know the outcome, the film intensifies like a thriller within it’s quickly paced two hour and twenty five minute run time.

Serious history buffs and college students of the Cuban missile crisis will not go into the movie for any additional scholarships or extra credit on their papers. While the general movie crowd will see “Thirteen Days” in the way much like Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner’s “JFK”. Just like most movies based on true stories, not everything in “Thirteen Days” will have happened exactly like it did in real life. But Donaldson and his team makes sure even the little things in the movie (whether they did happen or not) feel like it really did happen. 

But for director Roger Donaldson and screenwriter David Self, they wanted historical facts to take precedence for the film and spend little time with the more sentimental side of the films historical figures. Screenwriter David Self constructed much of the film’s drama stemming from the tension built among the characters. The events remained the primary focus, while the film spent little time with any material that didn’t directly relate to the historical event. “Thirteen Days” even incorporated President Kennedy’s recording machines that he would frequently set-up during his meetings at the White House. As much of the dialogue from the movie is taken directly from those tapes.

In “Thirteen Days”, the progression of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is examined from the point of view of the U.S., which is reason for the films criticism. The criticism comes from not setting any scenes in Moscow and relegating Cuba to only a few shots of palm trees being bulldozed. It’s certainly a one-sided view, but historically this is legitimate. The fact that the Americans don’t know what is going on in Moscow, captures precisely the tone of the many memoirs which emerged from the Kennedy administration. It’s easy to forget how invisible the rest of the world was from Washington in 1962. There wasn’t even a telephone line between the White House and the Kremlin. Khrushchev was reduced to broadcasting messages for Kennedy over Radio Moscow.

“Thirteen Days” could have easily been degenerated into a cold history lesson, but the film offers a crackling, entertaining  and tension filled look at a period in which we came closer to nuclear annihilation than any other time in history. I was 15 years old when the movie was released and because I live through movies. “Thirteen Days” had triggered my fascination with John F. Kennedy the man, his term as President and of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

The decision to tell the story through the eyes of Kenny O’Donnell, who according to Kennedy scholars can barely be heard on White House tapes made during the crisis and he doesn’t figure as largely into the actual Cuban missile crisis as the movie implies. David Self instead uses O’Donnell to function as the protagonist of the movie and as a useful fly on the wall. O’Donnell’s real son Kevin, who is an internet tycoon, had helped bankroll a buyout of movie studio Beacon Entertainment who made the movie.

Costner is Kenny O’Donnell, a White House jack-of-all-trades and a close adviser whose office adjoins to the Oval Office. He has deep roots with the Kennedy’s, being Bobby Kennedy’s roommate at Harvard and Jack’s campaign manager, he is an utterly loyal confidante and in the movie he becomes the role of the “ordinary Joe” hero that audiences can identify with. As great an actor that Kevin Costner is, his Boston accent in the movie remains infamous. Costner’s attempt is so notorious that a “Kevin Costner accent”, is an accepted slang term for a non-Bostonian’s unsuccessful attempt at the Boston accent.

Although I wouldn’t call O’Donnell the film’s main character, since this was a true ensemble piece. Bruce Greenwood (“Double Jeopardy”) is fantastic portraying John F. Kennedy. Greenwood who was 44 years old when the movie was released, was only one year younger than the age JFK was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As Kennedy, Bruce Greenwood is vaguely a look-alike and sound-alike, but like Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon”, he gradually takes on the persona of the character and we believe him. Steven Culp makes a great Bobby Kennedy, sharp-edged and protective of his brother and Dylan Baker in one of his finest roles, has a resemblance to McNamara that is uncanny.

The film does accurately depict White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger as having been kept in the dark by administration officials regarding the discovery of missiles in Cuba. In an interview many years later, Salinger said he first began to suspect something was amiss during the flight aboard Air Force One from Chicago to Washington. President Kennedy had cut short his trip to Chicago and Salinger had been instructed to inform the press that the president was suffering from a cold. 

Kennedy, who was famous for never wearing a hat, was wearing one as he emerged from his hotel and stepped into his limousine, which did not go unnoticed by Salinger. At one point during the flight back to Washington, Salinger said he found himself alone with the president, and said to him “Mr. President, you don’t have a cold. There’s something else going on, isn’t there”, to which Kennedy replied “You bet there’s something going on. And when you find out, grab your balls”.

It received positive reviews from critics who praised the films screenplay and performances of the cast but was unfortunately, a box office bomb grossing $66.6 million against its $80 million budget. In 2001, Kevin Costner screened the film for Fidel Castro in Cuba. Also in 2001, “Thirteen Days” was released on DVD and appeared as New Line’s first “infinifilm” title. The infinifilm DVD is a unique and one of a kind, viewer directed experience. Where the viewer is in control of what you watch and when you watch it.

The DVD can also be experienced with the infinifilm option enabled, that allows you to access content specifically relating to the scenes via pop-up prompts that appear. The then break through format let’s you explore, escape and interact to take your movie-watching experience to a whole new level. You could go beyond the movie and discover the fascinating facts and intriguing stories surrounding your favorite films from New Line Cinema. “Thirteen Days” also made it’s debut on Blu Ray in 2013 and has since gone out of print where it’s now being sold, ranging anywhere from $75 to $150. 

“Thirteen Days” is a well-executed and compelling effort. We’ve seen too many films that fail to stick with it’s factual elements as they try to spin their own tales. But this wasn’t one of those movies, as it offered an accurate and honest account of some of the world’s most tense days. Donaldson’s film is suspenseful, efficient and a remarkably well calibrated, machine. The story is so gripping and the ensemble performances is so dominating that director Roger Donaldson, manages to disguise the fact that the movie is just conversations between men.

“Thirteen Days” is a thrilling investigation into the decisions and power struggles that shaped Kennedy’s most crucial political situation as a President. Anytime we get a movie that can make a genuinely thrilling two and a half hours, based on events already known to the audience, you know you’ve got a successful movie. It is as gripping as a great thriller and as informative as a great documentary.

Roger Donaldson and Kevin Costner’s film delivers the truest depiction of the Cuban Missile Crisis with a tag line that couldn’t be more true: “You’ll Never Believe How Close We Came”. It’s an intelligent thriller and an engaging look at the closest we’ve come to a nuclear war that makes you marvel at how we prevented the brink of a new World War. “Thirteen Days” is a complex film that engages your intelligence, keeps you on the edge of your seat and like the real events itself, it chills your bones. It’s also a tribute to a moment when John F. Kennedy had developed a legacy worth remembering and of a moment in history when wisdom prevailed. If you haven’t seen it since it debuted 20 years ago, I advise you see this one as it comes with my highest recommendation. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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