SPEAKING OF THE PRESIDENCY, Bill Clinton recently told The New Yorker, "We need to demystify the job," which his two terms have certainly accomplished. No wonder then that we pine for the pre-tabloid, pre-Monica era, when our elected leaders could bathe in the aura of our unknowing, undiscerning adulation. Even figures like Ike, FDR, and LBJ have been subject to historical reevaluation, their personal foibles far outselling dry academic studies.
directed by Roger Donaldson with Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Culp opens January 12 at TK and TK
JFK stands apart, however, a publishing force unto himself even 38 years after his death. Historians have bent the myth of Camelot this way and that—Las Vegas sleazy to Berlin Wall heroic—since his assassination. Nevertheless, after Tricky Dick and Slick Willie, John F. Kennedy remains a touchstone of nostalgia and respect, the lost paradigm of a strong leader we miss all the more acutely today.
Harrison Ford's 1997 film Air Force One was but a harbinger of this revisionist trend, with its war-hero-turned-president single-handedly defeating hijackers and defending his family. As the coproducer and driving force behind Thirteen Days, Kevin Costner seems similarly intent on rehabilitating the stature of a much-denigrated office.
As a result, there's not a whiff of Marilyn or sex in the White House of Days, where Costner plays Kenny O'Donnell, a loyal aide who shares the Kennedys' Irish Catholic- Harvard pedigree and thick Bahston vowels. It's October '62, and the Russkies are setting up missiles in Cuba—time for the Wise Men, in short. Among them, Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood of The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica does a good, subdued JFK, while Steven Culp conveys RFK's wired intensity. (Predictably, Costner's accent lags behind theirs.)
No Way Out director Roger Donaldson effectively mixes together newsreel footage with color and black-and-white film stock to help convey real Cold War tension. Unfortunately, our knowing the outcome to the crisis hampers the picture, creating a lack of dramatic urgency that no amount of period detail or hidden revelations can fill. Turns out we were closer than people realized to nuclear war, but is that really so hard to guess?
In the end, Thirteen Days is willfully atavistic and unironic, like last year's pointless George Clooney TV remake of Fail-Safe. It's almost worshipfully pedagogic, teaching that JFK was a good man able to outfox both the Soviets and the maniacs in the Pentagon. Evidently, Costner picked up a few conspiracy theories from starring in Oliver Stone's JFK, but his Days would've fared better as Stone-like paranoid fantasia or straight documentary. Instead, this uninspired, workmanlike movie merely reminds us of a time when it was hip to be square.