With all of the hubbub and drama surrounding the contentious and controversial U.S. election results of 2000, one can easily focus too much on the process and thus forget just how important electing the right person for the job can be. Not only must the President serve as the administrative head of the executive branch of the government and as the commander in chief of the armed forces, but he/she must also have the ability to lead the country and serve as a unifying voice and presence under the most difficult and trying of circumstances.
Much like the election of 2000, the one that occurred in 1960 was also quite close and controversial. Yet, the voters that year probably had no idea that the future of America and indeed the world hinged upon the person they chose.
That's not to say that events would have played out for the worse had Richard Nixon defeated John F. Kennedy that November, but there's no denying that the latter and his staff managed to avoid the type of catastrophe the modern world had only previously dreamt about and feared in the back of their minds.
That, of course, was the Cuban Missile Crisis that unfolded over a two-week period in October 1962 and is now portrayed in the appropriately titled, "Thirteen Days." For those old enough to remember, this isn't the first time the subject has been tackled in a dramatic sense (the 1974 TV film, "The Missiles of October" with William Devane and Martin Sheen was the first at it), and it even served as a backdrop for the barely remembered 1993 comedy, "Matinee" (with John Goodman as a horror filmmaker preparing to preview his latest film in Key West right when the crisis begins).
Despite the passage of time, the end of the cold war, and the common knowledge of how the events unfolded and ultimately played out, however, the subject matter is still riveting, and so is this film, at least most of the time.
Reuniting star Kevin Costner ("For Love of the Game," "Tin Cup") with director Roger Donaldson ("Species," "Dante's Peak") - they made "No Way Out" together -- the film manages to be a mostly engaging and often captivating experience despite some problems that briefly trouble the production. Broadening the scope and magnitude of the earlier TV movie, Donaldson and screenwriter David Self ("The Haunting") keep the tension strung rather taut throughout, no doubt helped by the true-life incident's inherent dramatic and suspense-filled underpinnings.
While only those who were directly involved and/or history buffs can attest how much, if any, artistic license was taken in this film - that's partially based on the book "The Kennedy Tapes - Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis" -- the story as presented here unfolds in a credible enough fashion to convince most everyone of its validity and sweep them along in its story.
Unlike "Missiles," this version of the events opens them up in a more cinematic fashion, thus preventing the proceedings from becoming stale and repetitious due to being landlocked in the White House. Although we don't get a view from the other side - namely the Russia's motives and reactions - or much of that of the American public beyond some obligatory and somewhat contrived home and family material involving the protagonist, the method the filmmakers deploy works rather well.
That it manages to do so despite obviously lacking the crucial "what will happen" element and related building momentum is a testament to Donaldson and Self's filmmaking abilities and the simple powerfulness of the basic story.
It certainly doesn't hurt that they get solid performances from the film's three leads who, despite the presence of other prominent political and historical figures of the time, constitute what's basically a three-man show. While Kevin Costner ("For Love of the Game," "Message in a Bottle") gets top billing and delivers a good performance despite having a devil of a time maintaining a Bostonian accent (much as he did with an English one in "Robin Hood"), the film's best performances come from Bruce Greenwood ("Rules of Engagement," "Double Jeopardy") and Steven Culp ("Nurse Betty," "Fearless") who play John and Bobby Kennedy respectively.
Greenwood perfectly plays the President, not as an icon, but as a smart and challenged political figure, and thankfully avoids trying to do the "perfect" JFK impersonation. Culp is terrific as the Attorney General, and both create a credible and riveting family dynamic that certainly must have been something to behold, especially under the tense shadow of the missile crisis.
Michael Fairman ("Forces of Nature," "The Great White Hype") is good as former presidential candidate turned ambassador Adlai Stevenson, while Dylan Baker ("The Cell," "Happiness") also delivers a solid performance as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The rest of the prominent characters somewhat blend together and, despite introductory onscreen titles that identify them, really don't make much of a lasting impression since they have little time on the screen and are barely developed.
Overall, and despite those few problems, this is a well-made and engaging dramatic/political thriller. Although its impact is somewhat lessened by the fact that some/most of us know how it will unfold and ultimately end, the terrific central performances and solid writing and direction make this an entertaining piece of filmmaking. "Thirteen Days" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.