Thirteen Days (12)

Review by Jack Foley

DVD FEATURES: 50-minute documentary, Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis; commentary from key officials involved at the time, deleted scenes, film-makers' commentary, biogs of the historical figures, including Castro and Pierre Salinger.

FOR 13 days in October 1962, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war as a group of politicians from the US and Russian governments squabbled over the positioning of some missiles in Cuba.

Thirteen Days, the movie, chronicles the events which unfolded during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as it became known, and is a suitably sweaty insight - albeit one-sided - into the lives of the men who, ultimately, held the fate of the world at their fingertips.

Directed by Roger Donaldson and starring Kevin Costner (the two last teamed up for the memorable No Way Out), 13 Days is an always compulsive, occasionally frightening, peek behind the corridors of power at the men involved in those crucial negotiations. It demonstrates the lengths to which some men would go in order to start a war, while showing the extraordinary effort the Kennedy brothers put into averting such an unthinkable course of action.

Aided by a cracking screenplay, which was written by David Self (redeeming himself no end for his work on The Haunting), and well served by a first rate ensemble cast, the movie manages to be exciting even though the outcome is never in doubt.

The tale unfolds through the eyes of Costner's Kenneth P O'Donnell, a trusted presidential aide and confidante, but the film belongs to Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, whose powerhouse portrayals of John F and Bobby F Kennedy respectively form the emotional core of the movie.

It was they who took on the might of the military advisers who sought nothing better than to go to war to erase the memory of the Bay of Pigs humiliation, treading a political minefield as they manouevered a peaceful compromise in front of a watchful world. Yet ironically, in little over a year, President Kennedy would be assassinated, as would Robert, then a US Senator, in a further five. O'Donnell passed away in 1977, with those closest to him noting that he never truly recovered from the sadness of the loss of the Kennedys.

Donaldson's movie could be criticised for over-glorifying these three men, turning them into saint-like heroes who prevented global destruction. After all, America was objecting to the Russians pointing missiles at them from Cuba, when they were pointing their own missiles at strategic targets in Europe. Why should America get off the hook?

Similarly, the movie makes no mention of Kennedy's life outside of the crisis - to the playboy image, his allegedly shady dealings, or the onset of events which could have led to his assassination (for any conspiracy theorists out there). The Cubans and Russians themselves are also largely portrayed as a nasty, faceless enemy not to be trusted at any cost.

But casting aside such details, Donaldson has chosen to concentrate almost solely on what went on at the White House (save for a few exciting shots of US spy planes performing do-or-die missions over Cuban territory), meticulously chronicling the debates between the officials. And if that sounds dull, then consider what was at stake. The emotional pressure these men must have been under (there are times when you can almost smell the sweat) comes close to being unbearable and high praise, indeed, must go to Greenwood and Culp for delivering such mesmerising turns.

As John F Kennedy, Greenwood revels in his portrayal of a contemplative president, willing to listen to all sides before making any decisions, while Culp is equally enthralling as the scheming, more calculated brother. The two are virtually inseparable, relying on each other for the strength to `do the right thing', while O'Donnell watches on, advising wherever he can, but becoming increasingly isolated from them. Costner is stronger here than he has been for some time. If only to witness just how close we came to nuclear war, 13 Days is worth seeing. But fans of top quality US shows such as The West Wing will not be disappointed - this provides plenty to chew on.