An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Thirteen Days (2000)

Stephen Culp as Bobby Kennedy, Bruce Greenwood as President Kennedy and Kevin Costner as Kenny O'Don

Stephen Culp as Bobby Kennedy, Bruce Greenwood as President Kennedy and Kevin Costner as Kenny O'Donnell in Thirteen Days - the stiory of the Cuban Missile Crisis told from tapes recorded inside The White House - Credit: Archant

With blockbusters clammering for our attention at every turn it’s easy for some of the smaller, more thoughtful films to slip past, unnoticed. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a new series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies, both old and new, that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

Bruce Greenwood as President Kennedy in Thirteen Days - the stiory of the Cuban Missile Crisis told

Bruce Greenwood as President Kennedy in Thirteen Days - the stiory of the Cuban Missile Crisis told from tapes recorded inside The White House - Credit: Archant

Thirteen Days, dir Roger Donaldson, Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Kevin Costner, Steven Culp, Cert: 12

As the recent award-winning historic space-race movie Hidden Figures demonstrates, Kevin Costner delivers his finest performances when he is a member of an ensemble cast and not the leading man.

That belief is re-enforced when watching Thirteen Days, the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Adapted by writer David Self, from tape recordings made by President Kennedy of meetings, the film puts the audience in the heart of the White House to experience the stomach churning tension as the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.

It’s clear from the film that Jack and Bobby Kennedy, played with uncanny accuracy by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, were not only having to second guess the motives and actions of Khrushchev and the Soviet regime, they were also having to fend off their trigger-happy military commanders who were looking to make amends for the Bay of Pigs debacle the year before.


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We see the events unfold through the eyes of the Kennedy’s long-term friend and political advisor Kenny O’Donnell, played with quiet authority by Kevin Costner, who also served as producer on the film.

You would expect a film drawn from tape recordings and filled with verbatim dialogue to be slow, talky and drawn out – but you would be wrong. This is a fast-paced political thriller that keeps racking up the tension until the final frame. Fans of the TV series The West Wing know how compelling walking and talking can be and the stakes are even higher here.

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While most of the movie is understandably set in the precincts of The White House, we occasionally get to see the Russian ships trying to run the blockade around Cuba and follow the US Airforce flying reconnaissance missions of the Cuban missile sites.

The entire movie crackles with danger. We know the world didn’t end in a nuclear holocaust in 1962 but this doesn’t prevent us kept on the edge of our seats for nearly two-and-a-half hours.

The performances are compelling. You believe that Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp are Jack and Bobby Kennedy. They manage to look and sound like them without resorting to impersonation and are guided through this historical moral maze by the canny advice of Costner’s Kenny O’Donnell.

This is modern history writ large but it’s also must see cinema. It’s great drama because Roger Donaldson takes the time to make the characters human. As these young men play a high stakes game of poker with world peace, their families are never far away, reminding them and us who the real casualties will be if a peaceful compromise can’t be found.

Thirteen Days is a powerful evocation of a remarkable period in world history and yet it’s power lies in the fact that it is a very human story, told by fallible men, who could have very easily made a mistake which would have annihilated the world.

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