History Channel buffs now have an excuse to get up off the couch. Thirteen Days, which stars Kevin Costner as the guy who helped keep Camelot from being blown to smithereens, has the integrity of a high school textbook, and I mean that in a good way. Director Roger Donaldson and scriptwriter David Self don't offer us anything like a revisionist history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there are facts and interpretations that contemporary historians may object to. But where the movie provides a valuable service to its country is in reminding us how touch-and-go the whole affair was. When the Soviet Union started installing medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba back in 1962, the world teetered on the brink of annihilation, and there was no guarantee--or even much of a probability--that cooler heads would prevail. Perhaps the coolest head, according to Thirteen Days, belongs to President Kennedy, who, in Bruce Greenwood's grave performance, steers a course between gearing up and backing down. His own military advisers are all but screaming for air strikes and an invasion, and nobody seems to know what Premier Krushchev is up to. So the movie turns into a series of tense meetings, albeit with none of the screwball antics that liven up the governing process on "West Wing." Thirteen Days is as serious as a heart attack and about as eloquent as a taped transcript, which is where Self got many of his lines. But the movie draws a decent amount of tension from the very idea of two superpowers going eyeball-to-eyeball over the future of humankind (despite our knowing in advance how things turn out). Costner's character is a cross between his roles in JFK and The Bodyguard--high-minded, tough-minded, the embodiment of grace under pressure. Having Costner play the president's assistant rather than the president himself preserves the movie's delicate balance of power, in which a number of historical figures are played by relative unknowns. None of the impersonations are dead-on, nor do they need to be, since many viewers aren't going to remember who these people were. And yet one of the movie's chief pleasures--for me, anyway--is seeing who's in and who's out. John and Robert Kennedy are in, of course, but Joe Kennedy is out, dissed by Costner. Robert McNamara (stands up to military) is in. McGeorge Bundy (plays Armageddon for political advantage) is out. General Curtis LeMay (dying to nuke Commies) is way out.
LeMay and his ilk would get their comeuppance in Dr. Strangelove, which took the whole duck-and-cover philosophy to heights of surreality. But it's good to have on film a more or less accurate record of what happened when the Cold War suddenly got a lot warmer. Most of the time, even antiwar films are filled with blood and guts. Here's a rare example where the whole movie is about the effort to avoid that first shot, lest it be our last.