Thirteen Days
Opens Fri Jan 12 at Meridian 16 and Metro.

ON OCTOBER 16, 1962, an American spy plane sighted evidence that the Soviets were deploying mid-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, missiles capable of killing 80 million people with about five minutes' warning. Taking its title from Robert Kennedy's book but its worldview from hagiography, Thirteen Days portrays the ensuing Cuban missile crisis as an episode in the life of St. Jack Kennedy.

You may enjoy this movie, and that's okay, but I want you to hate it too.

Here's what's to enjoy:

(a) Bruce Greenwood (you'll recognize him from Atom Egoyan's films) as Jack, and Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy (he also played Bobby in Norma Jean and Marilyn). Greenwood captures a stiffness that was always part of Jack's charm, although there's not much opportunity in this film for him to flash the grin that sealed the bargain. Culp does Bobby's unpredictable alternation between loose limbs and tightly coiled center to a T. Both are such extraordinary examples of body acting that I think we have to give director Roger Donaldson some credit for them. (Actors don't just make this stuff up, you know.) When they open their mouths, they sound not as bad as you might think; again, neither of them really sounds much like the original, but they get the overall cadence right and we fill in the rest. And of course we get to contrast them with....

(b) A performance of madcap ripeness from Kevin Costner, who in addition to a production credit permitted himself to be cast as Kennedy henchman Kenny O'Donnell, a role in which he affects a "Boston" accent so broad that his every line reading left me weak with laughter. It may not have been his intention to brighten my mood in this way, but I take my pleasures where I may.

(c) Pretty-pretty-pretty opening stock footage of nuclear blasts. Ever since Dr. Strangelove used some of that same footage to fine sarcastic effect, it's been more or less obligatory for movies to show us how attractive nuclear holocaust will be.

(d) Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara, rolling his eyes like a cow whose foot's just been run over by a tractor.

(e) Anachronisms. My favorite is the presidential secretary who sports a bouffant of blond hair with dark roots; blond hair with dark roots fit the 1962 White House exactly as a safety pin through the eyebrow fits the White House of today.

That's pretty much it for the enjoyment. And why should you hate such an innocuous piece of fluff? You should hate anything--any work of art, any literature, any fiction, any history--that pretends there is an obvious answer to any serious question. David Self's script tries to fool us into thinking there's some serious moral reckoning at work by providing St. Jack with not one but two bad guys to slay. Bad Guy Hawk is Curtis LeMay, played by Kevin Conway. Bad Guy Dove is Adlai Stevenson, played by Michael Fairman. Both parts are so glaringly, grotesquely unshaded as to amount to character assassination--and believe me, I would have thought it impossible to make me feel sympathy for the real-life General LeMay, who by all accounts relished making lily-livered political naifs like me squirm. But the man was not an idiot. On the contrary, he was an able and resourceful strategist with a keen understanding of what it takes to win a war, if war there must be. To equate his skill and his opinion with some kind of mad-dog relish for universal annihilation is just wrong.

The Stevenson portrait is if anything even worse, because it contains so many concentric layers of drivel. We are meant to believe that Stevenson, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, delivered impromptu speeches there unvetted by the White House, that such speeches set policy, and that their reception by the U.N. delegates in open session determined the course of world events. At the heart of this nonsense is a shameful portrayal of Stevenson as a coward and a ninny.

A sensible person could easily see Jack Kennedy's behavior during the Cuban missile crisis as heroic. But his heroism would not consist of rejecting two obvious straw men. It wasn't obvious what to do, and even those who regard JFK as a hero will also admit he was damned lucky.

Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who married her first husband on October 13, 1962.