Docudramas are a precarious high-wire act. A filmmaker must take an event well-known by the general public and pack it with the drama and suspense necessary to make a quality film. A writer must manipulate facts in order to create a dramatically satisfying narrative without straying so far from the truth that it might as well be fiction. Actors must portray well-known figures without coming across like a Saturday Night Live impressionist — impeccable, yet soulless. In all cases, even the tiniest misstep can cause the whole film to fall apart instantly.

Despite Kevin Costner’s attempt at a Boston accent, Thirteen Days doesn’t make those missteps. It takes place largely in three rooms within the White House and focuses primarily on “special assistant to the President” Kenny O’Donnell (Costner) and the Kennedy brothers (Bruce Greenwood as the President, Steven Culp as Bobby — both excellent), but it manages to have a sweeping, epic quality. The film gives audiences a fly-on-the-wall view of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 13 days in which the U.S. and Soviet Union hovered on the precipice of nuclear war. Like the film itself, the events depict a diplomatic dance, and any tiny misstep could have potentially destroyed the world. Stakes don’t get higher than that.

The story wisely presents itself as a talky political thriller. It avoids melodramatic pitfalls by emphasizing the work, not the personal lives of the people doing the job. It defines the characters by how they react to the discovery of incomplete Soviet missiles on Cuban soil, rather than showing their family lives. Only O’Donnell’s family is seen, but writer David Self and director Roger Donaldson handle these moments with appropriate restraint. Even O’Donnell’s desperate warning for his family to leave town doesn’t go over-the-top. The dialogue (much of it allegedly taken directly from recordings Kennedy made during this time) crackles with tension without being too showy or clever.

More than anything, Thirteen Days is a film about strained working relationships — within the federal government, between the U.S. and the Soviets, between the Kennedys and O’Donnell — trying to remain civil during a difficult time. The drama and suspense comes from these long-existing tensions finally boiling over. Excellent acting across the board helps to convey the characters’ thinly veiled hostility without spelling everything out. Every role has a lived-in feel, including what amounts to glorified cameos by Christopher Lawford and Charles Esten as pilots who sense danger when they keep getting calls from the President and his inner circle. Even Costner, despite his struggles to maintain a working-class “Southie” accent, does a terrific job as O’Donnell, who effectively serves as the conscience for the Kennedy brothers.

Despite his varied career, Donaldson has never made as good a film before or since, which is disappointing. He manages the nearly impossible feat of making the familiar Cuban Missile Crisis into an unpredictable, nail-biting thriller. He also shows great skill at working with actors that doesn’t really shine through in films like Species or Dante’s Peak.

Thirteen Days holds up as one of the most well-made docudramas of recent years. It’s well worth seeing for anyone interested in the Cuban Missile Crisis but not quite interested enough to pick up the daunting 800-page book on which the film is based.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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