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Fate of a Nation 

*Thirteen Days (PG-13)
New Line Cinema

Thirteen Days is an exceptionally competent political thriller that takes us back to the dark days of the Cuban missile crisis during the short administration of President John F. Kennedy. The basic story is well-known to most Americans -- in October of 1962, U.S. military observers discovered the buildup of Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 80 miles off the coast of Florida, and had to decide whether to launch an attack while trying to convince the Soviets to remove the missiles. As the movie starkly illustrates, it was probably the closest we've come to a nuclear exchange and possible annihilation by nukes on this continent.

What's new here is the point of view. Screenwriter David Self chooses to view the story through the eyes of White House special adviser and consummate insider Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), an old Harvard football buddy of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Steven Culp) who served as JFK's campaign manager in 1960. In the film, as in reality, O'Donnell's office was next door to the Oval Office and he was a major player in the Kennedy White House, though usually behind the scenes.

Self's interpretation of events includes the bitter division between the Kennedys and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and key military leaders, especially Air Force Gen. Curtis Lemay (Kevin Conway), who were ready to enter into military conflict and were chafed by the president's insistence upon making, or not making, that decision himself.

There's some outstanding chracter acting here by Culp, by Bruce Greenwood as John Kennedy, Dylan Baker as McNamara and Michael Fairman as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson. Culp and Greenwood do more than the expected Kennedy impersonations (aristocratic Boston accent, etc.), and are able to depict the two as an intense governing team, brothers who explicitly trusted and admired one another.

Costner gives it his serious, eyebrow-furrowing best as O'Donnell, but makes the mistake of trying on the Boston accent. It makes him mumble, and until a little more than half way into the film, it's often hard to distinguish what he's saying or exactly what accent he's trying to portray. The director should have called it off.

Still, the distraction is minor compared to the compelling drama onscreen. Thirteen Days could easily have fallen into the ranks of made-for-TV movies depicting historical events, but rises above that with its tight, intelligent screenplay, great visuals of the air over Cuba and the blockade at sea, and generally superb acting.

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