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Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp
Director: Roger Donaldsoni
Rated: M

AUSTRALIAN director Roger Donaldson was in his last year of high school during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.

During this crisis Donaldson says that he, along with most Australians, felt that the world was on the brink of a nuclear war.

I was born exactly one year later and so for my generation, and those after us, the stand-off between Russia, Cuba and the USA is a page of history, not an emotional memory.

It is, however, the balance between history and emotion that makes Thirteen Days such a powerful film.

On October 16, 1962 American spy planes over Cuba discover large numbers of troops assembling thirty-two Russian nuclear warheads directed toward the USA.

President J.F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), Chief of Staff Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) and Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp) summon security advisers and military chiefs for advice.

It is discovered that the missiles have the capability of striking all the major cities of the USA within five minutes of their launch.

“To strike first or not – this is the question” and it is discussed, debated, agreed upon, reversed, agonised over and prayed about for 13 days from October 16 to 28.

What sounds like a good idea for a television documentary is a riveting, insightful and well-crafted film.

It is hard to make a film of events like this. People sitting at desks, being at meetings and making speeches does not make for cinematic action. Donaldson, with scriptwriter David Self, focuses on the personalities and particularly on the trinity of the Kennedy brothers and O’Donnell.

The now-deceased Kenneth O’Donnell was a fellow Irish Catholic from Boston and a 1960 Kennedy campaign manager.

He was certainly a key Kennedy ally. Thirteen Days may overplay his hand, but it is harder to imagine him being out of the action than in it.

All three main players give excellent performances. Costner is certainly overdue for a cinematic hit and he has it here.

Donaldson’s direction is tight and the decision not to have any scenes of the deliberations of Cuban and Russian leaders is a good one.

The audience is as much in the dark as to their motives as the White House was in 1962.

This film takes the political, social and spiritual dimensions of this process very seriously, is filled with the human cost involved in the political process and so reveals a world in which the meaning of every word matters.

At 147 minutes, Thirteen Days could have felt as long as its title, but Donaldson injects human emotion into the pages of history and gives us one of the best films so far this year.

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