You'll never believe how close we came.
October 1962 was one of the most dangerous months in human history, yet is rarely talked about today. The world stood on the eve of nuclear war, as the United States and the Soviet Union played brinksmanship with the fate of the world in the balance. Thirteen Days is factually based on the time and events surrounding what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although we have the verdict of history to tell us how these events turned out, it still creates tension and is a well-crafted political thriller. This is also the first "Infinifilm" DVD from New Line, who was already the leader in quality extra content and terrific picture and sound, and has decided to do themselves one better. Go "Beyond the Movie" with tons of historical extra content along with the other bonus features we've come to expect from this fine studio.
Facts of the Case
We see the story through the eyes of Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), a political advisor and long time friend and confidant to President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and his brother Bobby (Steven Culp), the Attorney General. These three are close enough to share virtually anything with each other. Together they will be among the people in charge of handling the most harrowing international crisis in history, when a US spy plane detects a ballistic missile site under construction in Cuba. The military advisors, notably Strategic Air Command commander General Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway), want to immediately invade Cuba following a massive air strike on the missiles. Cooler heads warn this will lead to a Soviet invasion of Berlin, which will force the US to follow their NATO obligations and escalate the conflict. Nuclear war seems a foregone conclusion, and strangely the Generals seem alright with that. The missiles present a clear threat to the security of the nation, and their presence in Cuba will upset the delicate balance of power. Follow the path of history as we see these events unfold with a front-row seat to the hidden meetings and agendas of the leaders of the free world.
I was still a child during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I was only partially aware of the fear that swept the nation. We were neck deep in the Cold War, and building a bomb shelter still seemed like a pretty good idea. As a history buff I later studied the events in some detail, but it is safe to say I know a great deal more about them now than I did before. New Line has put together an astounding amount of historical data and detail in both the film and in the Infinifilm extra content. This really does go beyond the movie and becomes an educational experience.
I don't mean to take away from the film when I first spoke about the disc. Thirteen Days is an intense historical drama and political thriller rolled into one. The events, remembered now through dusty archives or hazy memories to most of us, come alive on the screen with an immediacy that belies their historic nature. I almost felt like I was in the Oval Office with the Kennedys much of the time. Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp fill the shoes of the two brothers whose lives would later end so tragically with deliberate flair.
The prominent theme that is constantly pounded home is the realization that we came so close to a full scale nuclear war. The first images of the film are archival footage of missile launches and detonations of thermonuclear bombs. Those horrific yet eerily beautiful images of the orange mushroom cloud are always just behind the scenes, and we must remember this was during an age when people still thought a nuclear war could be won.
New Line's Platinum Series almost made writing a review of the DVD itself a foregone conclusion. You knew before you even opened the case that you'd find a remarkable anamorphic transfer, great sound, and significant extra content. Oddly enough, the usual superlatives aren't quite so appropriate for the look of Thirteen Days. Here the fault is with the film itself, rather than some lack in the efforts of the technical experts. The film has a grainy, soft look, sometimes intentionally, and colors go from vibrant to black and white and at times something in between. Archival footage looks grainy as you would expect as well. This is the look of the film, which the anamorphic transfer accurately represents.
The sound is another story. The film moves at times from dialogue driven character drama to intense action and suspense, and the soundtrack responds. Dialogue is anchored in the center channel, and is always easily understood (except for Boston accents at times, more on that later) and music and sound effects are nicely combined across the front soundstage. Surrounds are seldom used except for ambient effects, until those action scenes showing the military come up, and then the subwoofer kicks in with a much more aggressive mix from all channels. Another excellent sound presentation from New Line.
Of course, the real star of the show, except for the film itself, is the extra content. The Infinifilm disc endeavors to go one step beyond their already feature-packed Platinum Series, and succeeds. If you select the Infinifilm mode at the main menu, the picture will air, but frequently a translucent blue bar appears across the bottom of the screen. There you will find options to highlight and press enter, and you are taken out of the film to interview snippets, archival footage, deleted scenes, and extras about the making of that part of the film. I strongly advise you to watch the film in its entirety before moving on to this mode, as it creates a very jumbled and much longer viewing experience. You learn a lot, but you could be confused if you haven't seen the film by itself first. If you want to bone up on your history before watching the film, these extras are also available by themselves in the "Beyond the Movie" section on the menu. Among those extras are a Historical Figures Commentary track, using interviews and archival footage from those really present at the time, including John F. Kennedy, the real-life Kenneth O'Donnell, Robert McNamara, Pierre Salinger, Sergei Krushchev (son of the then Russian Premier), and historians Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow. A Historical Information Track is a subtitle track that provides historical information (I know, you're surprised). This feature doesn't seem to work unless you are in Infinifilm mode, unfortunately. Historical Figures Biographies is pretty self-explanatory, and there is a 48-minute documentary "Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis" available from this menu.
"All Access Pass" is a group of bonus features that more closely follows the extras we are used to, with a Filmmaker's commentary track from director Roger Donaldson, producer and actor Kevin Costner, producer Armyan Bernstein, writer David Self, visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister, and executive producer Michael De Luca. Not all of them were recorded together, but the track works quite well, and moves smoothly between screen specific information and other anecdotes. "Bringing History to the Silver Screen" is an 11-minute feature that is a fairly typical mix of interviews, behind the camera shots, and promotional fluff. It's a nice piece, but nothing you haven't seen before. "Visual Effects" is a multi-angle look at the CGI effects, followed by the deleted scenes you can see through Infinifilm where they would be placed, with optional commentary from director Roger Donaldson. Cast and crew information and a theatrical trailer complete this section. Also available is DVD-ROM content including a script to screen viewer and the movie's website. You can spend many hours playing with all this, believe me.
I don't often cover the menus in my reviews, but when they are noteworthy or just different from what you are used to, I try to let you know. The main menu is somewhat confusing since the options are in a circular format, and you have to know whether to push the up, down, left, or right button to navigate it. Once you get that figured out, the menus are versatile and offer a wide array of help and information. There are sections that tell you how Infinifilm works, why there are color bars, and even explain widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks to the new DVD user. Going to "Need Help" from the main menu makes it even easier to access the special features with a more traditional layout. Using the regular menu options provides a nice animated sweep of the hourglass to the section you asked for. Outstanding menus.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Now that I'm completely worn out from the extra content and trying to explain it to you in less than ten pages, let's get back to the film. While it succeeds admirably on the whole, and for most of the film, there are areas that just drag out. There are several redundant scenes where Kevin Costner goes home to deal with his worried wife and see his kids. The 135-minute running length feels both compressed when it comes to the historical events, and too long when it shifts into personal mode. Kevin Costner also draws a bit of my ire. He is an actor some people love to hate, but I'm not one of them. My problem with him is that he seems to be really good in some films (Field of Dreams most notably, but not the only good one) and wooden and not very good in others. Here the problem is his laid-on Boston accent, which is overpowering and nearly indecipherable at times and tends to go away at others. I also felt like his character's deep involvement in these military and strategic matters felt a little overdone considering his position. I'm sure dramatic license was used to a certain extent. The film succeeds but not for every minute of its running time.
I'd still have to classify Thirteen Days as an important, compelling historical drama. The Infinifilm series is a huge step forward for DVD, and leaves only further ground for other studios to aspire to. The price of this feature packed disc is the same or less than some studios charge for bare bones regular editions. You might want to rent it if you are uneasy about the film, but this easily rates a purchase recommendation in my book.
President Kennedy is remembered and respected for keeping a cool head and navigating our country through one of its most terrible ordeals. The filmmakers are acquitted for reminding us all of that fact, and for making a good film in the process. New Line doesn't even have to bother showing up in the courtroom anymore, it seems.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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