Thirteen Days

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(2000) ★★★★★

BBC1: Wednesday 4 November, 11.35pm

For a couple of weeks in October 1962, the world watched and waited as President Kennedy and Premier Kruschev played a frightening game of brinkmanship during the Cuban missile crisis. Nuclear exchanges were not just a possibility – they were expected, at any moment. Roger Donaldson’s compelling political drama unfolds from the perspective of White House aide Kenny O’Donnell, the Kennedy brothers’ trusted confidante. The reassuring Kevin Costner, who gave one of his best performances as crusading DA Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s JFK, is astutely cast as O’Donnell, an insider exempt from Oval Office protocol.

He can rag Jack and Bobby, and doesn’t even have to kowtow to First Lady Jackie. He speaks his mind in exalted company. When the missiles are first caught on camera by surveillance planes, O’Donnell tells Kennedy: “Jeez, I feel like we’ve caught the Jap carrier heading for Pearl Harbor.” What, wonders everyone, is Kruschev playing at? In a massively destabilising move, it certainly looks like a shift to first-strike policy on the Russians’ part.

And the military chiefs of staff can’t wait to get their retaliatory strikes in first: “The big red dog is digging in our backyard,” says General Curtis LeMay, “and we are permitted to shoot him.” Wary of appeasing an aggressor, Kennedy is aware of the escalating stakes: “Those brass hats have one big advantage. If we do what they want us to do, there’s going to be none of us left alive to tell them they were wrong.”

Flipping from black-and-white to colour after a scarily beautiful montage of nuclear explosions, Donaldson (who also directed Costner’s 1987 hit, No Way Out) honours history by telling the story straight, no chases. Certainly no mention is made of Jack Kennedy’s womanising, unless you don’t believe that his recurring back problems were a legacy of his active service in WWII.

David Self’s incisive script is drawn extensively from White House tapes made during the crisis, and the large ensemble cast acquits itself admirably. Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp are fine as the close-knit Kennedy brothers, confused and occasionally callow, but determined not to be swallowed up by the chaos in the Cabinet Room, while Kevin Conway brings a glint of mania to his depiction of the obstreperous hawk LeMay, who would have his chance to play soldiers soon enough, in Vietnam. Hindsight lends the film considerable poignancy, of course, and intimations of mortality abound.

Certificate: 12
Duration: 140min

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Other Showings Date & Time
BBC1 Wales Thursday, 5 November at 12:05AM
BBC1 Scotland Thursday, 5 November at 12:35AM