Thirteen Days, director Roger Donaldson’s gripping peek inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, is a gift to high school history teachers everywhere. Just pop it in the ole DVD player (if your school has access to one), take a seat at your desk to grade some papers and trust your students are getting a fairly well-researched depiction of the little decisions, accidents and personality clashes which brought the world so dangerously close to nuclear annihilation.
“Mr. Schue,” they might ask, insisting on calling you “Mr. Schue” in homage to Glee even though that’s not your name, “Why does the footage keep going back and forth between color and black and white?”
“Shut up and watch the movie,” you’ll retort, before mumbling something about how it worked for Wizard of Oz or how it’s meant to draw a dramatic juxtaposition between the images we are accustomed to seeing from history and this movie’s more illuminating glimpses inside the Oval Office. Yep, you just pulled that out of your own ass.
“Mr. Schue,” they’ll ask, “Are we supposed to be laughing at the main character’s accent?”
“What, Kennedy’s? That’s just what he sounded like,” you’ll reply, barely looking up from your papers, laughing to yourself about how much deeper the film made Kennedy’s voice by virtue of casting Bruce Greenwood to play him.
“No, the other guy. His advisor. The one being played by Superman’s dad,” your students showing they at least grasp what truly matters, i.e., the ins and outs of superhero movies.
“That’s Kevin Costner. He’s playing President Kennedy’s political advisor Kenny O’Donnell. No, you’re not supposed to laugh at his attempt at a Boston accent, but, by all means, feel free to laugh if you want. Just know Julianne Moore’s Boston accent on 30 Rock was even worse. Also, Costner was once one of the biggest film stars in the world. Still kind of was when this movie came out in 2000,” you throw out there, stopping yourself before heading too far into “kids these days” or “get off my lawn” territory.
“Yeah, my grandma thinks [Costner]’s hot,” one of the girls innocently (or sarcastically, who can ever tell anymore) says, earning an icy, icy stare back from you. Oh, would you look at that. The next paper on your pile happens to be the one written by the girl who just made you feel so very, very old, or at least it’s the next one on the pile after you quickly re-arranged them. It’s time to exact your revenge on Lil’ Miss Snapchat over there.
Wow. The hypothetical history teacher I’ve created in this little scenario is kind of a dick. What the heck am I even talking about in the first place? Um, is there going to be an actual review in this Thirteen Days movie review?
Fine. You got me. I just ad-libbed a scenario straight out of Election because that’s preferable to the great discomfort I felt while watching Thirteen Days for the first time last night. That’s not to say Thirteen Days is a terrible film or a real chore to sit through. It actually makes for remarkably compelling viewing, a sobering tribute to the cooler heads which prevailed over those who would have so eagerly and recklessly plunged us into WWIII. It’s just impossible to watch this movie now, and not imagine the same events but with Donald Trump in Kennedy’s place and worry about the uneasy fate of the world.
Videos like this used to be funny, but now they’re just scary because they don’t seem such like exaggerations anymore:
What, now this is turning into a diatribe about politics? Lock you up, lock you up. I again reiterate: “Is there going to be an actual review in this Thirteen Days movie review?”
Right. Back on topic. Thirteen Days is adapted from Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s 1997 novel The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, which used then newly declassified documents to present a fuller picture of what really happened in the Oval Office during those fateful thirteen days in October 1962. In director Donaldson and screenwriter David Self’s hands, the book has been adapted into something which is halfway between an Oscar movie with soaring scores and memorable speeches and a History Channel special where important characters are often identified via on-screen text.
This seemingly incompatible combination surprisingly makes for the best of the both worlds, preventing the film from over indulging its more sentimental impulses while also not morphing into an overly dry recitation of dates and important events. The story is told through O’Donnell’s eyes, Self’s script using him as the audience surrogate and sometimes exposition machine even though that means O’Donnell comes off as a more important player in this international incident than he actually was in real life. It’s an acceptable and understandable compromise. After all, this is still a movie. There has to be someone around asking the right questions to help the audience keep up (thank you, Ellen Page in Inception). Moreover, O’Donnell acts as the heart of the film, the only character we’re allowed to see both at work and at home, comforting his worried wife and puzzling his various kids around the breakfast table with his thousand yard stare as he ponders the real threat of nuclear attack.
Through O’Donnell’s eyes, the film gradually drifts into John F. and Robert Kennedy hagiography, which might be objectionable to some with differing political views or opinions on the facts of the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, the core of the film is a simple and methodical walkthrough of the titular thirteen days, showing us exactly how the Cuban Missile Crisis developed and how it consistently placed President Kennedy and his brother Robert at odds not with just Russia but also with their own cabinet, e.g., Kennedy and his closest supporters repeatedly plea for diplomacy while his military generals repeatedly plea for war.
The story develops at a breakneck pace, as it did in real life, and as much as O’Donnell is used as Mr. Exposition there are still large chunks of the film which will be a mystery to anyone unfamiliar with the history of the era. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy’s subsequent firing of CIA Director Allen Dulles, our placement of nuclear missiles in Turkey and various other events which greatly informed and in some cases directly led to the Crisis are referenced in passing, with no one awkwardly stopping to ask, “Remind me, why do we have those missiles over in Turkey? I know I know this. I just can’t seem to remember.”
Of course, this is a decidedly American telling of the story, as you’d expect based on the source material. The Russian and Cuban side of the story is not depicted because the film is limited only to what Kennedy and his cabinet knew at the time. Moreover, the great unease felt throughout the country by an increasingly nervous public is referenced but only fleetingly depicted. As such, this isn’t exactly the definitive cinematic take on the Cuban Missile Crisis, if such a thing is possible, but it is likely the definitive take on how the White House handled and mishandled the crisis, the deals they tried to make, back channels explored for diplomacy, steps taken to maintain secrecy, arguments had with military leaders who had no faith in the President, etc. The world stared into the abyss and thankfully blinked.
Should such circumstances ever repeat themselves here’s hoping we find our way to a similar conclusion. As long as we elect leaders uniquely capable of rationale thought and given to a steady and calm temperament, we’ll be…oh crap. That’s right. Trump.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Perfectly tailored to history classrooms everywhere, but a worthy watch for all audiences, a necessary reminder of how close we truly came to WWIII.
At the time of this writing, Thirteen Days is available to stream on Hulu.