There’s a moment in an early ’60s exploitation thriller called Panic in the Year Zero when Los Angeles is nuked out of existence, at which point one of the characters — hiding some distance away in the mountains — evidences surprise at being alive with the telling phrase, “I thought when it happened … .” The interesting point and the perfect summation of the times lies in the use of the word “when” rather than “if.” That really was the mindset in the early ’60s: that nuclear destruction was a given. Thirteen Days examines the worst of that time, and perhaps the nearest we came to “when.” It would be very easy to overrate Thirteen Days based on the importance of the subject matter, confusing that with the importance of the movie itself. However, Thirteen Days is actually an amazingly accurate evocation of the Cuban missile crisis and the times in which it took place. The film ought to go a long way in conveying what it felt like to live through that era. I was just 8 years old when the events depicted took place, and all I initially remembered was Adlai Stevenson’s famous claim that he would wait until hell froze over for an answer from the Soviets. As the film unfolded, though, more and more of that time and the feeling it conveyed in me sprang to memory (my mother subsequently informed me that, at the time of the missile crisis, I insisted we immediately build a fallout shelter). The effect wasn’t exactly pleasant, but it was instructive — and ought to be instructive to anyone wanting to understand not just that period, but much of social unrest and change that followed in its wake. (You simply cannot have a generation that believes it will be blasted into nonexistence at any moment and not expect some kind of reaction.) There’s always an inherent danger in trying to make a movie built on immediately recognizable historical characters, and since Thirteen Days is brimming with just such characters it was even more of a risk. The casting walks a fine line between lookalikes and actors who can genuinely bring the characters to life, achieving an almost perfect balance with impersonations of the Kennedys, Robert McNamara, Adlai Stevenson, etc. — who look and sound enough like the real people, but who can also make us believe in their reality as people. This alone is a stunning achievement. Even more stunning, though, is the surprising direction of Roger Donaldson, a name mostly associated with not-very-distinguished action thrillers (Species, Dante’s Peak). Here, Donaldson doesn’t emerge as the last word in stylish filmmaking, but he does manage to recreate the time, even if he does so by borrowing some stylistic tricks from Oliver Stone’s JFK. Using a variety of film stocks, Donaldson fashions a film that not only recalls the largely black-and-white television of the day, but the muted look of color snapshots of the time. This is done unobtrusively, smoothly gliding in and out of black and white and faded color, while keeping the film’s more “realistically” depicted scenes similarly understated in terms of bright color. The screenplay by David Self (The Haunting) invariably offers at least the illusion of reality and a surprising amount of wit. With the aid of Donaldson’s assured direction and the nearly perfect cast, the film pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of creating tension within a story where the results are a foregone conclusion. Thirteen Days also serves as a trenchant reminder of a time when it was possible to at least believe in some degree of high-mindedness among our political leaders — whatever their personal weaknesses, foibles and demons. It should be noted that the film is fairly long (nearly two and a half hours) and, while it’s intellectually and emotionally gripping, it isn’t fast-paced. It is, however, an important and rewarding film that deserves to find an audience and should be seen.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke