Movie Review: “Thirteen Days”

I’m still so excited about this new blog, friends and readers! Thanks for all the comments on my Doctor Who reviews as well as on TTHH‘s Instagram–y’all are awesome! I’ve got several posts lined up for the next few weeks, including (but not limited to) a post featuring my favorite dresses and gowns from the Victoria series, and my review of The Greatest Showman–which, for some unknown, inexplicable reason, I didn’t write when I first saw it at the theater. I shall remedy that quite soon now that I’ve had the chance to see it again. (And yes, I actually have one of its show-stopping songs in my head at this very moment.)

Today, however, I’m going to introduce you to one of my favorite historical films, Thirteen Days [Blu-ray].*

@ Google Images

When I was but a wee hobbit-child, I was obsessed with the Kennedy family. Chalk it up to my rather large Jacqueline Kennedy paper doll collection as well as some beautiful picture books, including When Caroline and John Lived in the White House and Camelot at Dawn. I was obviously Very Young and Innocent, and these days I know a whole lot more, shall we say, unsavory knowledge about the Kennedys–but I still find them fascinating. I’ll even go out on a limb and admit to “Admiration with Caveats” for John and Robert Kennedy.

A good portion of that admiration stems from the Kennedy Administration’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when Soviet Russia transported nuclear missiles into Communist Cuba. These missiles were capable of striking the United States with only five minutes’ warning, something the American government (unsurprisingly) refused to tolerate. The Soviets, however, refused to pack up the missiles, leading to one of the biggest “who-blinks-first” standoffs in American history.

It was the closest we ever came to full-blown nuclear war.

@ Google Images

Thirteen Days, made in 2000, gives us a close-up and somewhat fictionalized view of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kevin Costner stars as Kenny O’Donnell, President John F. Kennedy’s Appointments Secretary, while Bruce Greenwood (AKA Captain Pike in the Star Trek reboot films) and Steven Culp play President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, respectively.

When the missiles are first discovered by American surveillance planes, everybody is alarmed–and of course, everybody wants to let the Soviet Union know in no uncertain terms that they won’t tolerate missiles so close to the homeland. But here’s the thing: nobody can agree on how to do that. The Joint Chiefs of Staff advise President Kennedy to bomb the daylights out of Cuba, followed by an invasion. President Kennedy, however, sees the bigger picture–and the bigger problem. If America bombs Cuba it won’t just be a cruel move (a superpower bombing a tiny country, even a Communist one, never looks good), but the Soviets will retaliate by attacking Berlin. In 1962, Berlin was split between east and west, the east side ruled by the Soviets and the west by its own, free government. And in 1962, Berlin (and indeed all of Germany and Western Europe) were under the protection of the United States.

At the height of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear warfare was on everyone’s mind, an attack on Berlin would be disastrous. So President Kennedy and his allies have to figure out a way to get rid of those missiles…without triggering the world’s worst nightmare.

@ Google Images

Part of what makes this movie so great is that it immerses you in the moment. You follow the characters into their homes and see them at their lowest, most vulnerable moments, out of the glare of the spotlight. You also follow minor characters, like the courageous fighter pilots who risk their lives taking photos of the Soviet missiles. There are even several scenes that mimic actual footage from the Kennedy White House, like the ones where the Kennedy brothers and Kenny O’Donnell are walking outside in intense conversation. It all feels very real and immediate.

Plus, the actors nail the mannerisms and accents of the real historical figures. Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp are at the top (maybe the very top) of my list of “Actors Who Look Exactly Like The People They Play.” Kevin Costner, not so much–but I haven’t seen him play a character I didn’t like, so no complaints here.

Unfortunately, Thirteen Days does have a lot of bad language–which, given the extremely stressful situation, probably isn’t that unrealistic. And Christian viewers will have a worldview quibble with one of the final scenes in which Kenny O’Donnell, overwhelmed by the looming probably of a nuclear war, tells his wife:

If the sun comes up tomorrow, it is only because of men of good will. And that’s all there is between us and the devil.

And then a few scenes later, when (spoilers!) the Cuban Missile Crisis is finally averted, he follows it up with the comment:

The sun came up. Every day the sun comes up says something about us.

It’s a humanistic platitude. In reality, Planet Earth’s survival depends not on men of good will (though they are important and should be valued and appreciated!), but on the sovereign goodness of an all-powerful, all-knowing God. In fact, O’Donnell’s statement runs counter to the inscription on a plaque that sits (and really did sit) on President Kennedy’s desk:

“Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

Still, Thirteen Days is a very vivid and powerful depiction of one of the most suspenseful events of the Cold War. On that merit alone, it’s well worth watching!

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