Like Kevin Costner, Thirteen Days is Solid

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

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
. 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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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
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.

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
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.