Thursday, February 25, 2021

Kevinography, part 10: Thirteen Days (2000)

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This is part 3 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.

Synopsis: In 1962, the Soviet Union secretly deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba. When the US found out, a deadly game of cat and mouse started as the US administration tried to find a course of action not drawing the world into nuclear war. While the military tries to goad the cabinet into war, Kenneth O'Donnel (Costner), Special Assistant to the President, is among those trying to find a political solution. But events take on a dynamic of their own, and it seems like the world will soon bust in flames...

Analysis: We're moving solidly into Second-Phase Costner. While he certainly is the biggest star in the ensemble and something like the main character, this is not a high-profile movie. The content is engaging enough: The Cuban Missile Crisis is the moment the world came as close to nuclear war as never before.

The problem is that the material is not especially conductive to film. There are a lot of persons, most of which are introduced only by a title card ("Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense"), so if you don't know who these people are, they're just different sizes of suits.

This is even true when it comes to O'Donnel, played by Costner, who is the only one to get something approaching a character. All the others are functions, and their character traits are discussed only as far as their functions are concerned. Even Costner isn't safe from this, as we meet a very run-of-the-mill American family and he declares his undying loyalty for the Kennedys.

That's normal for the genre, of course. This is in effect a visualized history book. But if you didn't read the history book before, you will be hard pressed putting all that happens in context. The major events are all there, but they're referencing stuff that is taken for granted. For example, there's a monologue by Bobby Kennedy in which he complains about his reputation, but his reputation never came up in the movie before - it is entirely at odds with what we've seen before. That makes sense; Bobby was Attorney General, and he's heavily involved in the crisis because he's Jack's brother, not because Attorney Generals are great foreign policy experts.

Many of the characters therefore just stand in conference rooms or war rooms relaying exposition. The movie does its best to spice things up with scenes "from the ground", showing the destroyers enforcing the blockade, the pilots taking pictures over Cuba, but in the end, while this does create some more palpable tension, it can't save you if you don't know the events already.

Another problem is that the events don't form a neat arc. There are some ebbs and flows, with the crisis becoming worse and alleviating several times, and there's no rhyme or rhythm to it because reality seldom has - but that doesn't necessarily make for good storytelling.

The movie also presents a very glorified version of the Kennedy administration, making them into the heroes of the story unapologetically. The only perspective we get is the one of the Kennedys and O'Donnel; the Soviet side is completely invisible, and the generals and admirals as well as the press are mostly shown reacting as doubters.

It's a saving grace that the Kennedys themselves as well as O'Donnel are wrong on the issues as well sometimes. This is a movie about a team, and defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis is a team effort. This doesn't really cover the fact that the historical accuracy suffers a lot, presenting something like an official American version of events that does not stand up to a historian's scrutiny.

Before we close this off, one word on Costner's acting. The man is going for a heavy Irish accent in this movie, and I mean HEAVY. Why? He couldn't be bothered to even try for British Englisch when he played Robin Hood, but the personal assistant to the president needs to speak like fresh from the pub because he's got an Irish surname? It's not much better for the Kennedys; I think actors and director both erred on the side of flavor here.

Verdict: You can watch it if you want some images in your head to go with the history of the crisis, but it's not a good source to learn said history from or as a movie on its own terms.

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