Like Kevin Costner, Thirteen Days is Solid
In a few years people will see how hokey Traffic is. By that time there might be wide appreciation for Kevin Costner's good taste and companionable acting and director Roger Donaldson's skillful technique in Thirteen Days. For now the nation's political weariness puts Thirteen Days in an unfair position. After the electoral battle of the bozos, few people are likely to care about this film's behind-the-scenes depiction of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Plus, Thirteen Days' politics aren't fashionably distracting like Traffic. ("Imagine all the lines of coke at the wrap party," suggested DVD Express critic Gregory Solman.) Thirteen Days' intensely sustained drama puts audiences into the midst of governmental crisis. There's no way out of those sealed chambers. Tension fuels every minute and it's mesmerizing to watch it spring from strategy, doubt, contemplation?the cinematic spectacle of men in crisis.
Costner plays Kenneth O'Donnell, a thick-accented Boston crony to John Fitzgerald Kennedy who becomes special assistant to the President of the United States. Though the central figure in David Self's admirable screenplay, O'Donnell is on the periphery of global events. He epitomizes the film's special concentration on personal loyalty and spiritual devotion. (O'Donnell can be seen about to pray or enter a church.) You may scoff at all this as hokey?since it eschews Traffic's sexual teasing and violent kicks?or else feel the moral substance of the conflicts facing O'Donnell, his compatriots and family. An audience surrogate in the deepest sense, O'Donnell states to his wife (Lucinda Jenney), "The will of good men is all that separates us from the devil."
What distinguishes Thirteen Days from such banal political dramas as All the President's Men is that it has the wit to view the vaunted whiteboys Beltway club skeptically?as O'Donnell subconsciously does. He takes his job seriously but has a bemused impression of it as a fantastic extension of the football scrimmages he and the Kennedys used to play. With global annihilation at stake, O'Donnell understands the game of nerve and arrogance that the executive branch has to run with Congress, the press, the military and foreign nations. He's there as the Kennedys' ally, both coach and teammate to two rich, nervy brats. Donaldson paces the men's White House strategy sessions with soldiers' reconnaissance missions over both the Soviet stockpile of medium-range missiles in Cuba and the weapons-bearing Soviet ships attempting to pass the U.S. blockade ("quarantine" in diplomatic parlance). These executive committee confabs?white shirts and ties vs. blue uniforms and medals?have the urgency of yardline huddles. Testosterone levels vie with bureaucratic rectitude, a view Donaldson achieves with unusual, yet credible dramatic flair. O'Donnell literally blocks a Pentagon bigwig from advancing on Kennedy at one point; a subtle move that defines his position in the dilemma and in the narrative.
Thirteen Days idealizes JFK yet depicts his aggravating arrogance through O'Donnell's irreverence. Both Kennedys are seen as privileged boys who have advanced to the big game, still looking for role models. "There is no wise old man," O'Donnell tells them. "Shit, there's just us." He's as frank as a quarterback talking to his pass receiver, as circumspect (a later scene shows) as a father watching his son on the field. Donaldson and Self keep the action and the intrigue plain; their style is preferable to tv's The West Wing, which treats White House dilemmas like the code-blue melees on ER. That's what passes for a political drama nowadays (note Traffic's empty hubbub) but Thirteen Days is the closest American cinema has come to the contemporary revelations of Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Over the City, studies of officialdom and its inescapable human tension. It shows the phenomenon of accomplished men turning into pawns of history before your very eyes. The vision is knowing yet reasonably awed like Rosi's.
When O'Donnell stands in a trio with the Kennedys, Donaldson's profiles in courage are not so much hagiographic as evocative. O'Donnell's haircut, buzzed in the old Dick Butkus style, complements the Kennedys' puffed-up bangs and severe left-side parts?a jock and college boy contrast true to the particular style of 60s America's political class. Occasionally shifting from full color to newsreel b&w (Andrzej Bartokowiak's bright photography is his best work ever), the familiar iconography preserves Donaldson and Self's drama as modern historical mythology. The mix of political force and theatrical poise does not announce itself like the many showy tints in Traffic, but it's more effective?not unlike Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. And the acting in Thirteen Days is comparable to Hollywood's 1953 film of Julius Caesar.
It's a flawless ensemble from the sharp Kennedy casting (Bruce Greenwood's exemplary voice and movement as JFK; Steven Culp, an anxious irritant as Bobby) to such figures as McGeorge Bundy (Frank Wood), Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway), Dean Acheson (Len Cariou), Dean Rusk (Henry Strozier), Ted Sorensen (Tim Kelleher). Actors rarely get a moment so grand as Michael Fairman's playing Adlai Stevenson, rising to the occasion to confront the Soviets in a United Nations showdown?a twilight of the Old Guard Left. Donaldson shows Raoul Walsh-like craft surveying the panoply of faces?inducting common people like operators, enlisted men, pilots into the historical parade?in ways that make this Hollywood's best ever corridors-of-power movie. The Adlai Stevenson-UN moment is a rare example of compassion, intelligence and politesse put at the center of an action film. Action is given human and historical significance, not flash. When JFK confides to O'Donnell, "You know, there's something immoral about abandoning your own judgment," it recalls the kind of movie Hollywood used to do well (like Seven Days in May), not a shabby, propagandistic potboiler like The Contender.
Another classic scene features Bobby vouchsafing his doubts to O'Donnell while en route to a last-minute Russian faceoff. Instead of skipping from Point A to Point B, Donaldson and Self fix on this interim, in-the-car moment of emotional transition. At a big, dangerous, world-historical precipice, Thirteen Days drops political facades and dares to get close.
Kevin Costner's screen integrity anchors Thirteen Days. It's his average-man nobility that matches his eagle-like profile to the Kennedy facsimiles; his simple, virtuous bearing that recalls Gary Cooper (as it did even in roles as diverse as No Way Out and Dances with Wolves). And like Cooper, as Costner's gotten older, he's gotten better. Big-bodied, broad-chested here, Costner fills the background of scenes without upsetting the dramatic balance, but in fact directing the audience's moral focus. His O'Donnell is strong, subtle, self-effacing acting, especially when he simply reacts to others who have the spotlight. He gives JFK and Bobby the side of his face as both sounding board and spiritual mirror?a male figure with more conscience than their father. Costner supplies his mostly male costars what he gave the women in Bull Durham and Tin Cup: masculine intimacy, a standard of respect and attention. He's always circumspect with these political wonderkinder and military hotshots but he also stays emotionally engaged. That's why O'Donnell's family man sacrifice and distance at the end are so fascinating and moving: he has modestly given the Kennedys his soul.
By reexamining the John and Bobby myths Costner effects more than a footnote to Oliver Stone's thrilling JFK, (prompting theories about the military industrial complex's motivations for a coup). Through Costner's O'Donnell Thirteen Days is, overall, a self-examination. Portraying the flipside of Jim Garrison's conscientious obsession in JFK returns Costner to a key moment in American political consciousness when hope turned to nihilism. This is more than can be said on behalf of more popular stars like Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, whose political movies The Patriot and Air Force One are the most shrill and dishonest exploitation, committed to the stars' personal aggrandizement rather than understanding and expiating private social conflicts. Costner has always reached for genuine communication, even in projects as misbegotten and unwatchable as The Postman. Considering this level of commitment, it's heartening to see Costner's expressiveness in Thirteen Days; it's comparable to Warren Beatty's in Bulworth. At the end, O'Donnell's exhaustion is both compelling and heartbreaking for the way his decency presages despair. It poses a personal query: What is it that Americans expect of their leaders and themselves? That's a more difficult question than any that is so easily raised and answered (hands hopelessly up in the air) by Traffic.
So Thirteen Days is a little nostalgic; at least it hasn't the sanctimony inherent in Traffic's know-it-all, up-to-the-minute slickness. Critics have made a cause of the self-congratulatory Traffic. People won't realize it until the fashion has passed, but Thirteen Days timelessly clarifies political behavior through the emotional investment made by private citizens such as Costner's O'Donnell. Like those shining Costner films The War and A Perfect World that look better over the years, Thirteen Days feels genuine. It may not spark the cultural moment, hanging on in theaters in spite of media neglect, but in a few years audiences will see: like the unassuming average man Costner embodies, Thirteen Days is solid.
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