Skip to main content

These are bird strikes, sparrows to be precise. That’s the way it is, guys.


Thirteen Days
(2000)

Kevin Costner’s desire to return to the era that proved so fruitful nearly a decade earlier with JFK was understandable, and the Cuban Missile Crisis is a subject replete with so many opportunities for drama and tension that it would take some very clumsy hands to mess it up. It’s ironic, then, that the least effective aspect of the film is Costner himself.

Which is not to say that he gives a poor performance. This is a typical Costner role, one that echoes the courageous family man type audiences have already seen several times (in the likes of The Untouchables and JFK). Admittedly, the star was widely taken to task for his dodgy Boston accent but I can’t say it particularly distracted me (aside from Costner occasionally looking as if he is chewing marbles).

The real problem is really that his character, Special Assistant to the President Kenny O’Donnell is uncomfortably shoehorned into a central role. During intensive discussions between JFK and Bobby Kennedy (marvellously played by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp respectively), debating the best course of action to take, it frequently appears that there’s this eavesdropper present who is getting far more attention and input than he would warrant. Using O’Donnell as an audience surrogate is understandable, and there are times when Costner blends into the background, but it’s a problem that his he is the recognisable star trying to wrestle attention from the two character actors who are the real centre of attention and decision making. We shouldn’t be waiting on what O’Donnell says next, but the film’s point of view asks us to do that.

Costner reunites with the above-average journeyman director Roger Donaldson; they had worked together thirteen years earlier on the excellent political thriller No Way Out. Donaldson’s approach is an unshowy one, concentrating on the character and story rather than visual flourish. Notably his one flashy choice here doesn’t work very well; dipping into black and white for “on the record” moments. It looks like someone has turned the colour down on an impulse, rather than adding a sense of period authenticity. The special effects aren’t so special either, with the CGI planes never looking very real.

Where the film succeeds is fortunately in the most important aspect; the creation of a palpable sense of fear and escalation. Every time it appears that progress has been made, something else occurs to set back efforts. The impetus from the Joint Chiefs of Staff is to strike punitively first, most likely leading to war, with only the Kennedys there to hold back the tide; JFK is viewed by them as being weak, but rightly he has no stomach for a nuclear conflict. In a highly effective tirade against an ignorant naval commander, Dylan Baker’s Robert McNamara explains that the manoeuvring the President is engaged in is a whole new language that the military are either willfully blind to or are too ignorant to understand.

At each stage there is opposition from some quarter, be it setting up a blockade rather than striking Cuba, unsanctioned activities that could be seen as provocative (nuclear and missile testing, sending a U2 into Soviet airspace, elevating the threat level to Defcon 2, firing flares as a warning to a tanker that has run the blockade), the concern over Khrushchev’s second message and whether it means the deal offered in the first is voided, the instructions to pilots that they are not to be shot down (and not to report any firing upon their planes). When a plane is destroyed by a missile events have reached the point where something like this was inevitable; the only surprising part is that the crisis did not spiral into all-out war.

If there’s a problem with the depiction here, it’s that the lines being drawn are a little too black-and-white. JFK virtually has a halo permanently fixed over his head, so beatific is he. The filmmakers avoid any mention of Operation Moongoose (the US’s campaign designed to topple Castro, which likely fuelled the decision to place Soviet nuclear missiles there), which was coordinated by RFK. JFK agonises over his every move as if he resides on a higher plane of moral conscience than everyone else. Adlai Stevenson (a superb turn from Michael Fairman) redeems himself from being written off as a Soviet appeaser (he suggested offering the withdrawal of US missiles in Turkey in exchange for the removal of the threat from Cuba) when he takes the hardline with a Soviet representative at a crucial meeting; but he is there basically to show that the President was taking a shrewd middle-line and did have a pair of balls.

It’s also unfortunate that the dialogue is at times rather literal-minded. That it doesn’t seem more so is down to the talents of Culp and Greenwood. The pep talks given by O’Donnell occasionally border on the trite (his car journey with RFK towards the end of the film is particularly guilty of this) and a growing tendency towards sentimentalisation threatens to scupper the earlier good work during the final stages. Kevin breaks down and cries on the stairs, and caps it off with a facile family breakfast conversation.

David Self’s career as a screenwriter has been fairly patchy (work includes the remakes of The Haunting, The Wolfman and Robocop) so perhaps we’re fortunate that he steers the narrative so firmly for the most part. Despite its flaws, this remains a smart political thriller with an impeccable supporting cast.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
(SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II’s on YouTube, and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

In a way, that’s good, as there can be no real defence that the fault lies elsewhere. What was Russell Mulcahy thinking? What was anyone thinking? Th…

So, you want to go overseas. Kill some Nazis.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
(SPOILERS) I suppose you have to give Kevin Feige credit for turning the least-likely-to-succeed-in-view-of-America’s-standing-with-the-rest-of-the-world superhero into one of Marvel’s biggest success stories, but I tend to regard Steve Rogers and his alter ego as something of a damp squib who got lucky. Lucky in that his first sequel threw him into a conspiracy plotline that effectively played off his unwavering and unpalatable nobility and lucky in that his second had him butting heads with Tony Stark and a supporting selection of superheroes. But coming off the starting block, Captain America: The First Avenger is as below par as pre-transformation Steve himself, and I’m always baffled when it turns up in best of Marvel Cinematic Universe lists. The best I can say for it is that Joe Johnston’s movie offers a mildly engaging opening section and the occasional facility for sharp humour. For the most part, though, it’s as bland and impersonal as…

I once fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle.

Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut (2005)
(SPOILERS) There’s an oft-cited view that Kingdom of Heaven, in its unexpurgated as-Ridley-honest-to-goodness-intended director’s cut – in contrast to some of his other, rather superfluous director’s cuts, in which case – is a goddam masterpiece. It isn’t, I’m afraid. First and foremost, Orlando Bloom is not miraculously transformed into a leading man with any presence, substance or conviction. But there are other problems, more than evident, mostly in the form of the revisionist pose William Monahan’s screenplay adopts and the blundering lack of subtlety with which his director translates it.

Definitely the perfect prisoner’s friend.

The Avengers 1.20: Tunnel of Fear
(SPOILERS) As Alan Hayes observes (in the booklet accompanying the DVD release of this recently discovered Season One episode), there’s a more than passing kitchen sink element to Tunnel of Fear. You could almost expect it to form the basis of a Public Eye case, rather than one in which Steed and Dr Keel get involved, if not for the necessary paraphernalia of secrets being circulated via a circus fairground.

I apologise for Oslo's low murder rate.

The Snowman (2017)
(SPOILERS) Maybe Morton Tyldum made Jo Nesbø adaptations look deceptively easy with Headhunters, although Tyldum hasn’t show such facility with material since, so maybe Nesbø simply suits someone with hackier sensibilities than Tomas Alfredson. It’s a long way down from the classy intrigue of John Le Carré to the serial killer clichés of The Snowman, and I’m inclined to think that, even if Alfredson had managed to film that 15% of the screenplay he says went awry, this wouldn’t have been all that great.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…