Had John F. Kennedy never been assassinated, it's a sure bet we'd see many more movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was undoubtedly the benchmark event of his short-lived presidency. Now, thanks to the 50th anniversary of his death, Warner Bros. has decided to finally give 'Thirteen Days' a high definition release, and while they haven't bothered adding any new bells or whistles to this version, the new transfer is worthwhile and the film itself remains one heck of a good movie.
The film takes us inside the White House and behind the scenes of the crisis – primarily dealing with the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) meetings that took place between President Kennedy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and others inside the administration during the days of the crisis. You'd think a movie that primarily consists of these men sitting around a table discussing and debating what to do next would make for a boring film, but 'Thirteen Days' proves to be a riveting piece of entertainment.
Although Kevin Costner is technically the lead of the film, playing Ken O'Donnell, one of JFK's top aides and a close personal advisor, the real star of the movie is JFK himself – played wonderfully here by Bruce Greenwood, who gives the performance of his career and was almost certainly robbed of an Oscar nomination. His portrayal of JFK isn't an impersonation (and, to be honest, Greenwood doesn't look a whole lot like Kennedy), but he manages to capture the essence of the 35th President so well that it doesn't take long for viewers to totally buy him in the role.
An equally impressive performance is given by Steven Culp, who looks and acts so much like the real Bobby Kennedy, that 'Thirteen Days' actually marks the second time Culp has played Kennedy on-screen (the first was in a made-for-TV movie). Together with Greenwood, the two actors prove to be completely believable in their respective roles and provide performances that set the standard for any future big screen depictions of JFK and RFK.
Now we come to Costner's O'Donnell, whose main purpose in the movie is to provide viewers with a conduit character through which they can see the events of the crisis unfold. Costner is one of the producers on the movie, and his presence in the film itself was probably necessary before a studio would greenlight the picture. However, O'Donnell really isn't vital to the story, although – horrible and inconsistent Bostonian accent aside – Costner does turn in a pretty solid performance. However, the portrayal of O'Donnell in the film led many critics to criticize it as being historically inaccurate, since there's no strong evidence that O'Donnell aided JFK during the crisis the way he does in this movie (in fact, many suggest that it was actually Ted Sorensen, the President's speechwriter, who had Kennedy's ear during these events much more than O'Donnell did). It seems to this reviewer than the argument over O'Donnell's role in these events is a rather minor quibble in an otherwise pretty accurate portrayal of what happened, but it's up to each individual viewer to decide if that makes 'Thirteen Days' a lesser film because of it.
While there are not many scenes outside of the White House, 'Thirteen Days' does manage to nicely capture the feel of tension during this period of the American public – primarily through the O'Donnell character and his family. The film also mixes in some historical footage with its recreations as well as showing either the beginning or end of scenes in black and white – all of which add a historical feel to the movie.
One of the more appealing things about 'Thirteen Days' is how well rounded its supporting characters are. While the Joint Chiefs primarily see Kennedy as weak on Communism (a charge that would haunt the Administration up to JFK's assassination), they're not painted as typical moustache-twirling villains in the movie. They actually believe military action is the right choice. On the flip side of this coin is Adlai Stevenson, who suggests they broker a deal (which is eventually what happens), but even the Kennedy brothers see Adlai as weak early on. In the end, Kennedy needed to hear the views of both the 'hawks' and the 'doves' to find a path toward a peaceful resolution.
There's not a lot of action in 'Thirteen Days' – just a ton of talking, yet it's one of the most thrilling and exciting motion pictures I've seen that's based on real-life events. Whether you lived through the crisis, or have only read about it in history books, 'Thirteen Days' deserves a spot in your film library.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Thirteen Days' comes to Blu-ray from Warner Bros. in one of those eco-friendly keep cases that have holes in the casing because the studio thinks you're actually going to recycle it. There are no inserts in the case, nor are there any previews front-loaded onto the disc, whose menu consists of a still of the box cover image, with selections along the bottom of the screen. Music and short audio clips from the movie play over the main menu.
I'm happy to report that Warners has provided a beautiful-looking HD upgrade to 'Thirteen Days'. The image is free from any dirt or defects, but the movie still maintains a film-like quality, with a light layer of grain in every shot. The movie mixes its primarily color presentation with hints of black and white here and there (to add a historical feel to the movie and, no doubt, remind us of some of those great black and white photos of the Kennedy White House) as well as stock footage from the actual events. All flow together nicely throughout.
Since most of the scenes in 'Thirteen Days' take place in the White House and other government offices, it's not always noticeable just how rich and colorful this transfer is. But take a look at the scene were Kevin Costner's character goes to visit his son at a football game, and viewers will be able to pick up just how lush this release looks in high-def. Details are quite distinguishable throughout – not always to this film's advantage, as often some of the background items in scenes didn't exist yet in 1962.
Skin tones are consistent, and black levels are very good throughout. Although viewers will be able to pick up a slight 'shimmer' (or shaking) of the text in the opening/closing credits, I was hard-pressed to find any incidents of artifacting or aliasing in the movie. All in all, viewers should be quite happy with this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer.
The quality of the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track (the only audio option on this release) isn't always noticeable, as a big chunk of 'Thirteen Days' consists of men sitting around a table talking to one another. But when action does occur in the movie, it becomes quickly obvious at how active this track can become. Just take a look/listen at the scene where a pair of pilots head into Cuba to snap some photos of the missiles. Suddenly, the viewer will feel like he or she has moved to a Tony Scott movie with the roar (and directionality) of the jet engines and the sound of return anti-aircraft fire from the ground.
Dialogue, which is primarily front and center throughout the movie, has been nicely balanced with the movie's soundtrack and occasional action sequences, so there are no problems with balance throughout. Everything is crisp and clear with no obvious glitches in the lossless track evident.
Subtitles have been provided in both English SDH and Spanish.
The bad news is that Warners has provided no new extras for this Blu-ray release. The good news is that they've ported almost all of the DVD extras over from their 2001 'infifilm' release, although this new version nixes the 'in-film' option to jump out of the movie to watch the bonuses, and just puts them all in the extras section of the disc (which, in my opinion, is the preferable way to view them anyway). All of the ported-over features (sadly, even the theatrical trailer) remain in standard definition. Still, as you'll see, this disc provides a wealth of material.
'Thirteen Days' is my favorite movie about JFK and is full of great performances (yes, even Costner with that inconsistent and questionable Bostonian accent does a nice job here). Warners has provided viewers with a great new HD transfer of the movie, and – even though they're all ported over from the DVD version – the extras are plentiful and informative. For a catalog title release, 'Thirteen Days' gets my highest recommendation.