The last thing I would have wanted for Christmas was another Kevin Costner movie about the Kennedys. But Thirteen Days is a harrowing surprise.
Based on transcripts of White House tapes recorded during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, it takes us back to when guys in suits and ties and guys in brass and uniforms play nuclear chicken.
This is what it looked like when Camelot's cool insolence met not only the saber rattling of the Soviet Union, and the fecklessness of Castro, but also a crazy Pentagon. What's the point of a career in the military if you don't get to play with your own toys?
Remember the U-2 over-flights and surveillance photos? Costner, as JFK's street-smart political adviser, Kenny O'Donnell, needs them explained to him by the president (played by Bruce Greenwood) and McGeorge Bundy (played by Frank Wood).
Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman) surprised everybody, especially Bobby, by talking tough at the United Nations. But it is Adlai's idea of swapping obsolete American missiles in Turkey that Bobby brokers in back-channel negotiations with a Soviet diplomat.
Thirteen Days, all of them scary, gets it right, from mind games to choosing which message from Krushchev to reply to and why this country quaintly insists on civilians in charge.
Roger Donaldson directs as if there were spiders and amphetamines in every cup of coffee at the table. We know now, from Soviet archives, that Castro at the time got so hysterical, he wanted a first strike. We know a number of things now that nobody knew then. But what continues to surprise is that these BostoIrish, instead of spoiling for a fight, figured out a way not to have one, and so we don't glow in the dark.