The Kennedy boys' desperate efforts to prevent nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis make for one of the most gripping political/military thrillers in years.
During two terrifying weeks in 1962, the discovery of Russian nukes in Cuba triggers a series of confused responses from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that bring the world to the brink of Armageddon. Fiercely loyal White House aide Kenneth O'Donnell (Kevin Costner) finds himself in the center of the storm alongside President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp). Under the most crushing pressure imaginable, can this heroic trio find the right diplomatic formula to keep itchy fingers off the button?
Costner turns in the sort of assured Everyman performance that made him a star, grounding the myth-shrouded subject matter in an accessible human reality. No less important to the piece is some soulful Kennedy impersonating from the charismatic Greenwood ("Double Jeopardy") and Culp, the latter such an uncanny ringer for RFK that he was previously tapped to play the crusading attorney general in the telefilm "Norma Jean and Marilyn."
Reunited with Costner, star of his now-classic 1987 thriller "No Way Out," Roger Donaldson shoots for maximum tension by focusing on twists in the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering rather than the broader drama playing out on the nation's TV screens. Considering the audience knows the ending going in (no, we didn't have a nuclear war in the '60s), the filmmakers are surprisingly successful in working the situation for nail-biting suspense. The key decision to center the story on O'Donnell's more ordinary character rather than the larger-than-life Kennedys helps to keep the piece dramatically real despite its epic Camelot backdrop.
The History Channel crowd can argue about the accuracy of details, but "Thirteen Days" spins one of the 20th century's scariest moments into a first-rate thriller.