Actors, Directors, Films – there is room for all of the deserving at The Overlooked Hotel.
Thirteen Days – a tense political thriller/historical drama – is as deserving as any. Let’s build a case for it…
The Cuban Missile Crisis was as fraught and potentially explosive a stand-off as any during the Cold War. Alongside proxy wars and political posturing, we had here a genuine and perilous game of brinkmanship, brought to life with startling verisimilitude by director Roger Donaldson and an exceedingly accomplished cast including Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker and Kevin Costner.
We begin with high-altitude surveillance revealing medium range ballistic missiles being positioned on Cuba by the Soviet Union and the seemingly impossible decision then placed on the relatively young John F. Kennedy as to how to respond. An invasion or airstrike ran the risk of turning the Cold War very warm, very quickly, but to not respond at all invited further installations and the placing of the entirety of the continental United States in harm’s way. War-mongering advisors pulled Kennedy one way, his inner circle (Attorney General and brother Bobby Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and special advisor Kenny O’Donnell) tried to keep him from getting painted into a corner and all the while they were all having to wildly speculate as to what the Soviets were thinking, how they would react and what on earth would actually prove to be the “right” thing to do.
Donaldson commands the considerable acting cast with aplomb, identifying the key players and their proclivities with economy and clarity. Although the bulk of the “action” is a series of terse meetings and conversations, interspersed with reconnaissance flights and shots of ships and freighters squaring off in the Atlantic, what could have been a very talky, dry history lesson is instead elevated to an (at times) unbearably tense political drama, the stakes sky-high and the guessing games and hunches unimaginably weighty. As Costner’s Special Advisor says at one point, “there is no wise old man, there’s just us” and that sense is expertly conveyed of a room full of men trying to just think things through as seems best to them. Undoubtedly Bobby Kennedy was an incredibly smart man and he is portrayed here as both politically astute and historically informed, but no-one knew how this was going to play out and much like Apollo 13 before it, the fact that we know what the outcome was does nothing to reduce the anxiety of watching the film.
Whereas X-Men: First Class gave us an altogether more bombastic version of events, this more subtle and considered approach is far more satisfying and is an invaluable insight to Cold War politics, the US political and diplomatic processes and a fantastic history lesson to boot.
The pressure cooker within which Kennedy made his decisions is adroitly expressed on screen, along with excellent touches like passing mentions of Jack’s Bad Back. We also get a few excellent snippets of White House staff rapport and the shenanigans and horse-trading that are necessarily involved when dealing with the press, the public, garnering Congressional and Senatorial support and strong-arming foreign diplomats. Everyone is at the top of their game and although there is undoubted benefit in having such rich historical events to work with, the script, direction and acting still need to be up to scratch. Thirteen Days struggled to get to 75% of its budget in terms of worldwide box office, but regardless of those stats, it remains an unblemished example of historical political drama at its finest. Films like Lincoln might have garnered more attention from critics and awards, but this is up there with the best and therefore deserves board and lodging at The Overlooked Hotel without further ado.