Friday, January 12, 2001

”Thirteen Days,” which deals with the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, begins with actor Kevin Costner’s name superimposed on the image of a mushroom cloud.

Not that Mr. Costner hasn’t hitched his star to many a bomb or dud in recent years, but reminding frequent moviegoers of this association seems rash.

Mr. Costner portrays presidential assistant Kenneth O’Donnell, who died in 1977. The performance is weakened by a Boston accent so pronounced and dubious that it keeps the earliest episodes off-balance.

President John F. Kennedy is portrayed superbly by Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood, who has become something of a fixture as sneaks in melodramas such as “Rules of Engagement” and “Double Jeopardy.”

Mr. Greenwood seems to borrow a melancholy temperament from Frank Sinatra as the troubled intelligence officer, Maj. Marko, in the great conspiratorial thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). It’s a stroke of genius to combine that mood with an expert physical and vocal impersonation of JFK so expert during Mr. Greenwood’s re-enactment of the president’s Oct. 22 speech announcing the blockade (or “quarantine”) of Cuba that the illusion is uncanny to perfection.

Compared with “The Missiles of October,” the absorbing TV film of 20 years ago that dramatized the same events, the current movie might not seem significantly better, even with access to more of the historical record. Nevertheless, “Days” stirs renewed human interest and historical curiosity.

The apprehensions and divided opinions of the American decision-making elite responsible to the president are summarized vividly and sometimes oversimplified. The filmmakers cannot operate without a few whipping boys: the Robert McNamara of Dylan Baker, the John McCone of Peter White, the Gen. Curtis LeMay of Kevin Conway and even the Dean Acheson of Len Cariou. The movie makers suggest that these men were spoiling for a showdown with the Soviets over the installation of their missiles in Cuba and that the situation required a tenacious preference for diplomacy and equivocation by the president, his brother Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp) and even Mr. O’Donnell to avert calamity.

Fortunately, “Thirteen Days” does not degenerate into a kind of “Seven Days to Blame LeMay.” The filmmakers also depend on the fact of U.S. military power and prowess. For example, they get to take a break from high-stakes jawboning in the Oval Office or adjacent conference rooms to tag along with daring jet pilots on reconnaissance flights or destroyer commanders on blockade patrols.

Christopher Lawford, son of late JFK crony and onetime brother-in-law Peter Lawford, gets an attractive small role as an unflappable pilot, Cmdr. William B. Ecker.

The interludes with the military also remind one that the country’s leadership, having been caught with its pants down by Cuban and Soviet deception, was fortunate in possessing adequate might and aptitude to formulate some effective remedies in a crisis. Most of us who were alive at the time feel grateful that the antagonists came up with an acceptable plan for evading a showdown. Yet even caving credibly demanded some genuine access to power and resolve.

The filmmakers also are generous enough to show Mr. McCone and Mr. LeMay coming to the president’s aid with judicious opinions at critical junctures.

Three out of four stars

TITLE: “Thirteen Days”

RATING: PG-13 (occasional profanity and fleeting graphic violence, in a context of dramatized historical events)

CREDITS: Directed by Roger Donaldson. Written by David Self.

RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes

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