Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Roger Donaldson|
|Produced by||Armyan Bernstein
|Written by||David Self|
|Music by||Trevor Jones|
|Edited by||Conrad Buff|
|Distributed by||New Line Cinema|
January 12, 2001 (wide release)
|Running time||145 minutes|
Thirteen Days is a 2000 American drama-thriller film directed by Roger Donaldson dramatising the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, seen from the perspective of the US political leadership. Kevin Costner stars, with Bruce Greenwood featured as President John F. Kennedy, Steven Culp as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Dylan Baker as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
While the movie carries the same name as the book Thirteen Days by former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, it is in fact based on a different book, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. It is the second docudrama made about the crisis, the first being 1974's The Missiles of October, which was based on Kennedy's book. The 2000 film contains some newly declassified information not available to the earlier production, but takes greater dramatic license, particularly in its choice of Kenneth O'Donnell as protagonist.
In October 1962, U-2 surveillance photos reveal that the Soviet Union is in the process of placing missiles carrying nuclear weapons in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and his advisers must come up with a plan of action to prevent their activation. Kennedy is determined to show that the United States will not allow a missile threat. The Joint Chiefs of Staff advise immediate U.S. military strikes against the missile sites followed by an invasion of Cuba. However, Kennedy is reluctant to attack and invade because it would very likely cause the Soviets to invade Berlin, which could lead to an all-out war. Citing The Guns of August, Kennedy sees an analogy to the events that started World War I, where the tactics of both sides commanders had not evolved since the previous war and were obsolete, only this time nuclear weapons are involved. War appears to be almost inevitable.
The Kennedy administration tries to find a solution that will remove the missiles but avoid an act of war. They settle on a step less than a blockade, which is formally regarded as an act of war. They settle on what they publicly describe as a quarantine. They announce that the U.S. Naval forces will stop all ships entering Cuban waters and inspect them to verify they are not carrying weapons destined for Cuba. The Soviet Union sends mixed messages in response. Off the shores of Cuba, the Soviet ships turn back from the quarantine lines. Secretary of State Dean Rusk (Henry Strozier) says, "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked."
John A. Scali, a reporter with ABC News, is contacted by Soviet "emissary" Aleksandr Fomin (Boris Lee Krutonog), and through this back-channel communication method the Soviets offer to remove the missiles in exchange for public assurances from the U.S. that it will never invade Cuba. A long message in the same tone as the informal communication from Fomin, apparently written personally by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, is received. This is followed by a second, more hard line cable in which the Soviets offer a deal involving U.S removal of its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The Kennedy administration interprets the second as a response from the Politburo, and in a risky act, decides to ignore it and respond to the first message, assumed to be from Khrushchev. There are several mis-steps during the crisis: the defense readiness level of Strategic Air Command (SAC) is raised to DEFCON 2 (one step shy of maximum readiness for imminent war), without informing the President; a nuclear weapon test proceeds (Bluegill Triple Prime) and a routine test launch of a U.S. offensive missile is also carried out without the President's knowledge.
In a bid for time while under intense pressure from the military for an immediate strike, President Kennedy authorizes attacks on the missile sites and an invasion of Cuba, to commence the following Monday. A U-2 reconnaissance plane is sent over Cuba to gather intelligence for the attack, but is shot down, killing the pilot. After much deliberation with the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, Kennedy makes a final attempt to avoid a war by sending his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, to meet with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on Friday night. Bobby reiterates the demand that the Soviets remove their missiles from Cuba, and in return promises not to invade or assist in the invasion of Cuba. Dobrynin insists that the U.S. must also remove all Jupiter missiles from Turkey, on the border of the Soviet Union. Bobby says that a quid pro quo is not possible, but in exchange for Khrushchev removing all the missiles from Cuba, there will be a secret understanding that the U.S. will remove all of its "obsolete" missiles from Turkey within six months as part of a pre-scheduled plan. The Soviets announce on Sunday that they will remove their missiles from Cuba, averting a war that could have escalated to the use of nuclear weapons. The film ends with President Kennedy dictating a letter of condolence to the family of the reconnaissance pilot who was shot down over Cuba as part of the preparations for the invasion.
The film was co-produced by several companies, including New Line Cinema, Costner's Tig Productions and Armyan Bernstein's Beacon Pictures. The Department of Defense cooperated to some extent, allowing the producers to film on several bases. In order to keep the film "in period" filming took place on ships from the time of the crisis that still existed in the active fleet (USS Enterprise), and ships preserved as museums (USS Joseph P. Kennedy). Aircraft (both a preserved F-8 Crusader and Lockheed U-2 spyplane were featured) that still exist from the period were refurbished to appear operational as well.
The film was given a limited theatrical release on Christmas Day 2000, but wide release did not occur until January 12, 2001, with a staggered release to various countries throughout most of the year. The film was a box office bomb, grossing only $66,579,890 worldwide against an $80 million dollar budget.
Thirteen Days received positive reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes reports that 83% of 117 critics have given the film positive reviews with an average rating of 7.2/10 and the consensus: "Thirteen Days offers a compelling look at the Cuban Missile Crisis, and its talented cast deftly portrays the real-life people who were involved." On Metacritic, which assigns a rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream film critics, gives Thirteen Days a score of 67 indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave Thirteen Days a rating of 3 stars out of 4 and said "The movie's taut, flat style is appropriate for a story that is more about facts and speculation than about action. Kennedy and his advisers study high-altitude photos and intelligence reports, and wonder if Khrushchev's word can be trusted. Everything depends on what they decide. The movie shows men in unknotted ties and shirt-sleeves, grasping coffee cups or whiskey glasses and trying to sound rational while they are at some level terrified...[T]hings might not have happened exactly like this, but it sure did feel like they did." 
The Missile Crisis was first publicly dramatized in the 1974 made-for-television play The Missiles of October. Thirteen Days portrays some incidents based on newly declassified information not available in the earlier work. In an interview provided on the DVD version, the director touts the meticulous attention to historical accuracy of Thirteen Days.
However, several still-living (as of the film's release) Kennedy administration officials and contemporary historians, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Special Counsel Ted Sorensen, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, have criticized the film for the depiction of Special Assistant Kenneth O'Donnell as chief motivator of Kennedy and others during the crisis. Prior to seeing the movie, McNamara reacted to the premise in a PBS NewsHour interview:
"For God's sakes, Kenny O'Donnell didn't have any role whatsoever in the missile crisis; he was a political appointment secretary to the President; that's absurd."
According to McNamara, the duties performed by O'Donnell in the film are closer to the role Sorensen played during the actual crisis: "It was not Kenny O'Donnell who pulled us all together—it was Ted Sorensen." However, after seeing the movie McNamara remarked that while he still thought the filmmakers took some creative liberties with certain characters, he ultimately thought that it was a reasonable historical portrayal of the crisis:
"I think it’s an absolutely fascinating portrayal and a very constructive and responsible portrayal of a very, very serious crisis not only in the history of this nation but in the history of the world."
In the book Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, Matthew Alford criticises the film for side-lining "the real-world Kennedy administration's preoccupation with launching secret attacks, including an attempted invasion, against Cuba, which persisted into the crisis and beyond".
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