0kay, so the world is still here. Which means we pretty much know the outcome of Thirteen Days, a surging, intelligent, nerve-gripperof a thriller centred around the political intrigue and sphincter-clenching peril of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But that's certainly not a fault; this is a history lesson as taut and terrifying as any fictional movie plot.
Less histrionic and flashy than the canon of verbose Oliver Stone American epics, Donaldson directs with a meaty clarity, never bogging his film down in too much political machination but attributing his audience with the wherewithal to keep track of a highly complex situation. The body of the action is confined to anterooms of the White House and the Pentagon, as JFK and his two closest advisors (brother Bobby and Kenny O'Donnell) wrestle with the crisis — leaving it to brief but thrilling jet-rides over Cuba to remind us of the scope of the threat. The Russians remain an elusive, unseen opponent.
Hence, the film's heart-quickening urgency is left to a ream of heavyweight performances (there's not a dullard in the pack), razor-sharp editing and Self's vociferous script. Indeed, Thirteen Days seems constructed around startling scenes of truculent men in snappy suits shouting at one another. There is also a tasty paranoid edge, as the various military heads surreptitiously push for war, while O'Donnell starts to find himself excluded from the brothers' intimacy.
This is home turf for Costner (he made the fabulous No Way Out with Donaldson back in 1987); obviously passionate about the subject (he produces and even pondered directing), he gives a stately, effective performance as O'Donnell, who although central never quite seems the leading man. It is, however, Canadian actor Greenwood, as JFK, who shines brightest. Smart enough to avoid getting completely sucked I into replicating those regal, Bostonian tics, he goes for the essence of Kennedy, presenting a rarely seen side of the man: the intelligence, integrity and sheer nerve to quite literally hold the fate I of the world in his hands for 13 terrifying days. And Steven Gulp delightfully plays the nervy, brainiac Bobby like a hunched terrier excitedly engaged in a deadly chess game.
There's the occasional lapse into cheap Americanisms —we are presented with O'Donnell's homespun family as a symbol of freedom underfire — but surprisingly little flag-waving. What is most apparent is that this sophisticated tale of impending thermonuclear war stands as a powerful tribute to the conviction and humanity of Washington's finest.