|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 10 July 2001|
Normally, when historical events are dramatized for dramatic films, there is some question as to which parts are accurate representations of actual events and which parts have been altered to be more screen-worthy. The DVD release of "Thirteen Days," the premier installment in New Line Home Entertainment’s Infinifilm series, aims to address this issue by packing as much factual supplemental information on the disc as seems technically possible.
"Thirteen Days" takes its title from a period of extreme tension and military/political brinksmanship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in October, 1962. American spy planes photographed secret Soviet missile bases in Cuba, which would have made it feasible for the Russians to ground-launch nuclear weapons at the United States. President John F. Kennedy, his counselors and his adversaries within the White House and the Pentagon battled one another verbally as they all sought to find some way to prevent larger war from breaking out. One solution, favored by an anti-Kennedy contingent, was a pre-emptive nuclear strike, which would likely have resulted in WW III.
Since the world as we know it is still here and most of it hasn’t succumbed to radiation (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and certain other key sites notwithstanding) nearly 40 years later, viewers can surmise the conclusion of the events in "Thirteen Days." How war was avoided – and how it very nearly broke out – is the film’s subject.
The events are seen largely from the point of view of presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), who has a sympathetic yet critical view of both the President (Bruce Greenwood) and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp). To the film’s credit, O’Donnell’s influence isn’t inflated to improbable proportions simply because he’s played by the cast’s best-known member. Costner, Greenwood, Culp and their colleagues – including Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara, Michael Fairman as Adlai Stevenson, Kevin Conway as Gen. Curtis LeMay and Len Cariou as Dean Acheson – all convey the intensity of men who honor the social contract (if sometimes only by a thread) while feeling that destiny is in their grasp. All of the actors are on the same wavelength, giving strong performances. Greenwood and Culp, as the two most famous figures in the piece, capture the Kennedy personas without trying for outright impersonations.
David Self’s script is articulate and engrossing and director Roger Donaldson is adept at segueing from the emotional, verbal heat of the conference room to the visceral charge of what it’s like to be in a fighter jet dodging ground-to-air missiles in Chapters 16 and 26. The picture quality is especially beautiful in Chapter 26, with the vivid royal blue of the sky outside the atmosphere thrillingly reproduced. The soundtrack makes expert directional use of the 5.1 system, with aircraft and the pursuing missiles flying through the system front to back and side to side. Other especially exciting aural moments can be found in Chapter 7, in which a plane screams through the rears as it seems to cross the sound barrier and huge wave sounds in Chapter 18 as the ocean crashes across a ship’s bow.
Compelling as "Thirteen Days" is, what makes this DVD exceptional is the Infinifilm treatment. The film can be viewed uninterrupted in its straight theatrical form by simply clicking on "Play Movie." Clicking on the Infinifilm option allows the viewer to either explore the multitude of historical and biographical samples one at a time or encounter them within the context of the film. For example, when O’Donnell’s character is introduced, choices appear on the bottom of the screen. We can view a deleted scene that would have played here in a longer cut (with or without director Donaldson’s commentary) and/or check out a brief biography of O’Donnell. Each of the options helpfully comes with an individual running time notation. The options remain onscreen long enough for the viewer to reach a decision and click "enter." If the options are ignored, they eventually disappear, to be replaced with more options a little further down the line. One note: there are roughly twice as many chapters on the Infinifilm track as on the regular film track. The chapter titles in the liner notes correspond to the chapters on the regular film track only.
The supplemental materials are magnificently specific – on the "Historical Figures Commentary," a voice informs us who will be speaking next, so that there’s never any doubt. Commentators include everybody from an ex-CIA pilot to Russian politicians. The sound quality on these comments varies – some of the original tapes are obviously fairly old – but the restoration job is admirable.
"Thirteen Days" is a potent, energetic film that serves as both history lesson and insight into the way life-and-death deals are still made. It’s also a working example of how film buffs may wish all DVDs were made.