Thirteen Days

An Australian-born director (Roger Donaldson) and a Canadian-born actor (Bruce Greenwood) are the driving forces behind a taut, enthralling film depiction (“Thirteen Days”) of a tense moment in American history (the Cuban blockade of 1962).

It’s a brilliant film that can make little-considered pieces of real life out to be the most important moments in history, and “Thirteen Days” is close to being brilliant.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is a well-known incident, perhaps mainly because it’s one of only a handful of administrative episodes we have for our most romanticized president, John F. Kennedy. (Without this, there’s just the Bay of Pigs and the assassination.) “Thirteen Days,” however, makes the point that we should know about the event not out of a desire to remember JFK, but because we darn near went to war over it.

At the height of the Cold War, in October 1962, American spy planes discovered missiles being prepared for use in Cuba — something the Soviets promised they would never do. Missiles that close, well, they could kill Americans; the U.S.S.R. now had first-strike capabilities.

Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp) and adviser Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) are the three men on whom it falls to figure out what to do — but especially JFK, whom Greenwood plays as a passionate dramatic hero, his large, young-looking blue eyes filled with both worry and strength.

Plenty of guys in suits and military uniforms give a number of options, none of which seems likely to work. If we try diplomacy, the missiles become operational in the meantime. If we sneak in and destroy them, Russia retaliates by attacking Berlin. If we make a deal with the Soviets, we look like we’re willing to trade others’ safety in exchange for our own.

It comes down to two decisions: an all-out air strike, which will almost certainly lead to World War III; or a blockade, which will stop new ships from entering Cuba without necessarily getting rid of the missiles already there.

JFK goes with the blockade — but since a blockade is an act of war, he calls it a “quarantine.” And it still doesn’t solve the problem, which is going to take unflinching strength, diplomacy and a little compromise.

Adlai Stevenson’s (Michael Fairman) U.N. dialogue with the Soviet ambassador is straight from the transcript, and there is actual footage of people reacting to the news of the blockade, as well as a few reassuring but cautious words from Walter Cronkite. This goes a long way toward establishing the film as real history and not some made-up drama with a labyrinthine plot. (Historical crises are allowed to be twisty-turny and never-ending; we prefer fictional ones to be a little neater.)

Director Roger Donaldson and screenwriter David Self make some other wise choices, too. O’Donnell’s family is only in a few scenes; this is NOT a film about how Kevin Costner’s movie relatives were affected by a national crisis. Kevin Costner is kept to a minimum, too. His character probably should be a bigger figure in the action, but Costner is so devoid of screen presence these days that even though he’s almost always in the scene, you often forget he’s there. (He’s too overshadowed by the dynamic duo of Greenwood and Culp, anyway, and his Boston accent is laughable. The actors who play his kids do a better job.)

Also admirable is the noticeable lack of Beach Boys songs on the radio or other “this is 1962” bits of nostalgia. Those things are fine for a movie meant to evoke a particular time period. But “Thirteen Days,” while firmly entrenched in 1960s Cold War politics, is more a timeless example of courage under fire than anything.

Few films over 140 minutes in length justify their massiveness, but this one does. No scenes are wasted. A large cast of stellar actors make even one-scene characters come to life, from Karen Ludwig as a saucy White House operator to Madison Mason as a U.S. pilot saddled with the responsibilty of taking more spy pictures of a now-dangerous Cuba.

One questions Anderson’s apparently arbitrary use of black-and-white, and the few scenes we do see with O’Donnell’s family take away more than they add. But those turn out to be minor complaints about a movie that is, overall, absolutely electric.

A- (; PG-13.)