“THIRTEEN DAYS” (2000) Review

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“THIRTEEN DAYS” (2000) Review

In 1991, Kevin Costner starred in “J.F.K.”, Oliver Stone’s Oscar nominated film that explored the death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Nine years later, Kevin Costner returned to the land of this country’s own “Camelot”, in this docudrama about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 from the viewpoint of President Kennedy and the men who served his Administration.

“THIRTEEN DAYS” got its title from Robert F. Kennedy’s 1969 posthumous memoirs about the incident. Yet, David Self’s screenplay is actually based upon Philip D. Zelikow’s 1997 book, “The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis”“THIRTEEN DAYS” began in early October 1962, when the Kennedy Administration receive U-2 surveillance photos revealing nuclear missiles in Cuba that were placed by the Soviet Union. Because these missiles have the capability to wipe out most of the Eastern and Southern United States if operational, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers are forced to find a way to prevent their operational status. Also, Kennedy’s authority is challenged by top civilian and military advisers like Chief of Staff U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who wanted the President to display more obvious signs of military strength in order to scare the Soviets in to removing the missiles. Most of the interactions between Kennedy and his men are witnessed by Kenneth O’Donnell, a presidential adviser and close school friend of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

There have been complaints that “THIRTEEN DAYS” is not a completely accurate portrayal of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that the Kenny O”Donnell character, portrayed by star Kevin Costner, was unnecessarily prominent in this film. I do not know if the last complaint is relevant. After all, O’Donnell was one of Kennedy’s advisers during the crisis. But since Costner was the star of the movie and one of the producers, perhaps there is some minor cause for complaint. As for any historical inaccuracy . . . this is a movie adaptation of history. People should realize that complete historical accuracy is extremely rare in fictional adaptations – not only in Hollywood movies and television, but also in productions outside of the country, novels, plays and even paintings.

Were there any aspects of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that I found . . . uh, annoying or off putting? Well, Kevin Costner’s attempt at a Boston accent was pretty terrible. And if I must be frank, there was nothing exceptional about Roger Donaldson’s direction. I am not stating that he did a poor job directing the film. On the contrary, he did a solid job. But there were moments when I felt I was watching a TV movie-of-the-week, instead of a major motion picture – especially in one of the final shots that revealed the President’s advisers discussing policy in Vietnam, while Kennedy prepared to compose a letter to the relatives of a downed U-2 pilot.

Other than Costner’s Boston accent and Donaldson’s less than spectacular direction, I have no real complaints about the movie. In fact, I enjoyed it very much when I first saw it, twelve years ago. And I still enjoyed it very much when I recently viewed my DVD copy of it. “THIRTEEN DAYS” is a solid, yet tense and fascinating look into the Missile Crisis from the viewpoints of President Kennedy and his advisers. Before I first saw this film, I had no idea that Kennedy faced so much trouble from the military elite and the more conservative advisers of his administration. I was especially surprised by the latter, considering that the President himself was not only a borderline conservative, but also harbored hawkish views against Communism.

Although I would never view Donaldson as one of the finest directors around, I must admit that I was more than impressed by his ability to energized a story that could have easily been bogged down by a series of scenes featuring nothing but discussions and meetings. Instead, both Donaldson and Self energized “THIRTEEN DAYS” with a good number of scenes that featured tension between characters, emotional confrontations and two action sequences that featured military flights over Cuba. Among my favorite scenes are Kennedy’s confrontation with Curtis Le May, his angry outburst over Le May’s decision to engage in nuclear testing as a scare tactic against the Soviets; the flight of two U.S. Navy pilots over Cuban airspace; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s confrontation with U.S. Navy Admiral George Anderson; and especially U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s confrontation with the Soviet U.N. Ambassador Valerian Zorin.

However, Donaldson’s direction and Self’s script were not the only aspects of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that prevented the movie from becoming a dull history lesson. The cast, led by Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, provided some superb performances that helped keep the story alive. I am not going to deny that I found Costner’s Boston accent cringe worthy. One would have to be deaf not to notice. But a bad accent does not mean a bad performance. And Costner proved to be a very lively and intense Kenny O’Donnell, whose close relationship and loyalty to the Kennedys allowed him to be brutally frank to them, when others could not get away with such frankness. Steven Culp was equally intense as Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who seemed to inject energy into every scene in which he appeared. But the one performance that really impressed me came from Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of the 35th President of the United States. Instead of portraying Kennedy as some one-note political icon or womanizing bad boy, Greenwood portrayed Kennedy as a intelligent, multi-faceted politician struggling to prevent the outbreak of a third world war, while keeping his high-ranking military officers in check. Personally, I feel that Greenwood may have given the best portrayal of Kennedy I have yet to see on either the movie or television screen. The movie also featured some first-rate and memorable supporting performances from the likes of Dylan Baker (as Robert McNamara), Michael Fairman (as Adlai Stevenson), Lucinda Jenney (as Helen O’Donnell), Kevin Conway (as Curtis LeMay), Madison Mason (as Admiral Anderson), Len Cariou (as Dean Acheson), Bill Smitrovich (as General Maxwell Taylor), and especially Karen Ludwig and Christopher Lawson as the sharp-tongued White House operator Margaret and the sardonic U.S. Navy pilot Commander William Ecker.

I want to say something about the film’s production designs and setting. If there is one aspect of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that I truly appreciated how J. Dennis Washington’s production designs re-created the year 1962. And he did so without any over-the-top attempt at early 1960s style. Unlike some productions set during this period, “THIRTEEN DAYS” did not scream “THIS IS THE SIXTIES!”. Washington’s production designs, along with Denise Pizzini’s set decorations and Isis Mussenden’s costume designs presented the early 1960s with an elegance and accuracy I found very satisfying. Their work was ably assisted by Andrzej Bartkowiak’s photography. Bartkowiak’s work also supported Conrad Buff IV’s excellent editing, which prevented the film from becoming a dull period piece.

I do not know what else I could say about “THIRTEEN DAYS”. I do not claim that it is a perfect film. I found Roger Donaldson’s direction excellent, but not particularly dazzling or outstanding. And yes, Kevin Costner’s otherwise first-rate performance was marred by a bad Boston accent. But he, along with an excellent Steven Culp, a superb Bruce Greenwood, a solid cast and a satisfying script by David Self made “THIRTEEN DAYS” an interesting and well made account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

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“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

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“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

In 1993, producer Ted Turner and director Ronald Maxwell released “GETTYSBURG”, a film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel, “The Killer Angels”. Shaara’s son, Jeffrey, wrote a prequel to his novel called “Gods and Generals” in 1996. Both Turner and Maxwell teamed up again 2002-2003 to make a film adaptation of the latter novel. 

Set between April 1861 and May 1863, “GODS AND GENERALS” related the American Civil War events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the movie began with Virginia-born Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army, following his home state’s secession from the Union; the meat of the film focused on on the personal and professional life of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during those two years. It also touched on how Bowdoin College professor Joshua L. Chamberlain became second-in-command of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, his military training and his experiences during the Battle of Fredricksburg. But trust me . . . most of the movie is about Jackson. It covered his departure from the Virginia Military Institute; his experiences with the famous “Stonewall Brigade”; his experiences at the Battle of Bull Run; his relationships with both his wife Mary Anna, his servant Jim Lewis and a five year-old girl from an old Virginia family; and his experiences at the Battle Chancelorville.

“GODS AND GENERALS” had its virtues. One of them turned out to be Michael Z. Hanan’s production designs. Hanan and his team did a superb job in re-creating Virginia of the early 1860s. I was especially impressed by their recreation of mid-19th century Fredricksburg during that famous battle in December 1862. I wonder who had the bright idea of using Harper’s Ferry, West Virgina for that particular setting. Hanan’s work was ably supported by Kees Van Oostrum’s photography and Gregory Bolton’s art direction. Oostrum’s photography and Corky Ehlers’ editing was also put to good use during the Fredricksburg battle sequence. And I really enjoyed the costumes designed by Richard La Motte, Maurice Whitlock and Gamila Smith. All three did their homework in re-creating the fashions and uniforms of the period. Unlike “GETTYSBURG”“GODS AND GENERALS” featured major female characters. I suspect this gave the trio the opportunity to indulge their romantic streak with crinolines and hoop skirts galore.

There were some admirable performances in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Frankie Faison gave a warm performance as Thomas Jackson’s free cook, Jim Lewis. I was also impressed by Brian Mallon’s subtle portrayal of the concerned Major General Winfield Hancock, a role he had first portrayed in the 1993 film. It is a pity that Bruce Boxleitner did not receive more screen time for his role as Lieutenant General James Longstreet. He had taken over the role from Tom Berenger and gave a pretty solid performance. But alas, he did not receive enough time to do anything with the role. Alex Hyde-White gave an interesting portrayal of Major General Ambrose Burnside, whose decisions led the Union Army to disaster at Fredricksburg. Matt Letscher, whom I last remembered from 1998’s “THE MASK OF ZORRO” was very memorable as the 20th Maine’s founder and first regimental commander, Colonel Adelbert Ames. I could also say the same for Mira Sorvino’s portrayal of Frances “Fanny” Chamberlain, Colonel Chamberlain’s passionate and pessimistic wife. In fact, I believe she had the good luck to portray the most interesting female character in the movie.

So . . . what about the other performances? What about the stars Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall? I am not claiming that they gave bad performances. Honestly, they did the best they could. Unfortunately, all three and most of the other cast members had the bad luck to be saddled with very uninteresting characters, stuck with either bad dialogue or self-righteous speeches. In other words, I found them BORING!!! I am sorry, but I truly did.

First of all, Lang’s Thomas Jackson dominated the film just a little too much. Why bother calling this movie “GODS AND GENERALS”? Why not call it “THE LIFE AND TIMES OF STONEWALL JACKSON”? Even worse, Jackson is portrayed in such an unrelenting positive light that by the time the movie came around to his fate after the Battle of Chancelorville, I practically sighed with relief. Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain did nothing to rouse my interest in his story. In fact, he disappeared for a long period of time before he made his reappearance during the Battle of Fredricksburg sequence. And his appearance in that particular sequence was completely marred by him and other members of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment quoting William Shakespeare’s “JULIUS CAESAR”, while marching toward Marye’s Heights. Oh God, I hate that scene so much! As for Robert Duvall’s Robert Lee . . . what a waste of his time. Ronald Maxwell’s script did not allow the actor any opportunity to explore Lee’s character during those two years leading to Gettysburg. I realize this is not Duvall’s fault, but I found myself longing for Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the Confederate general in “GETTYSBURG”.

There is so much about this movie that I dislike. One, Maxwell’s portrayal of the movie’s two main African-American characters – Jim Lewis and a Fredricksburg slave named Martha, as portrayed by actress/historian Donzaleigh Abernathy – struck me as completely lightweight. Now, I realized that there were black slaves and paid employees who managed to maintain a friendly or close relationship with their owner or employer. But in “GODS AND GENERALS”, Lewis seemed quite friendly with his employer Jackson and Martha seemed obviously close to the family that owned her, the Beales. I could have tolerated if Lewis or Martha had been friendly toward those for whom they worked. But both of them? I get the feeling that Maxwell was determined to avoid any of the racial and class tensions between the slave/owner relationship . . . or in Lewis’ case, the employee/employer relationship. How cowardly.

In fact, this lack of tension seemed to permeate all of the relationships featured in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Aside from one Union commander who berated his men for looting in Fredricksburg, I can barely recall any scenes featuring some form of anger or tension between the major characters. Everyone either seemed to be on his or her best behavior. And could someone please explain why every other sentence that came out of the mouths of most characters seemed to be a damn speech? I realize that Maxwell was trying to re-create the semi-formality of 19th century American dialogue. Well . . . he failed. Miserably. The overindulgence of speeches reminded me of the dialogue from the second NORTH AND SOUTH miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. But the biggest problem of “GODS AND GENERALS” is that it lacked a central theme. The majority of the movie seemed to be about the Civil War history of Thomas Jackson. But the title and Shaara’s novel told a different story. However, I do not believe a detailed adaptation of the novel would have done the trick. Like the movie, it lacked a central theme or topic.

Perhaps I am being too arrogant in believing I know what would have made the story worked. After all, it is not my story. Jeff Shaara was entitled to write it the way he wanted. And Ronald Maxwell was entitled to adapt Shaara’s story the way he wanted. But I do know that if I had written “GODS AND GENERALS”, it would have been about the Battle of Fredricksburg. It turned out to be the only part of the movie that I found interesting.

Ten Favorite CIVIL WAR Movies and Miniseries

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the American Civil War:

TEN FAVORITE CIVIL WAR MOVIES AND MINISERIES

1. “North and South: Book II” (1986) – An almost excellent miniseries adaptation of John Jakes’ 1984 novel, “Love and War”, despite having a few problems with some of the plotlines and characters. If you like over-the-top period pieces, this is your story. The miniseries starred Patrick Swayze, James Read and Lesley Anne-Down.

2. “Gettysburg” (1993) – Movie adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the three-day battle at Gettysburg during the war. First class. Starring Tom Berrenger, Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen.

3. “Glory” (1989) – Movie about the famous all black 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment during the war. Superb and highly recommended. The movie starred Matthew Broderick, Oscar winner Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher and Cary Elwes.

4. “Lincoln” (1988) – Sam Waterson and Mary Tyler Moore starred in this excellent, two-part television adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel about the 16th president.

5. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Love story about a Confederate deserter trying to return home to North Carolina and the love of his life. Beautiful love story. Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Oscar winner Renee Zellewiger.

6. “The Blue and the Gray” (1982) – A three-part miniseries about two related families – one from Pennsylvania and one from Virginia during the Civil War. Pretty good. The miniseries starred John Hammond and Stacy Keach.

7. “Class of ’61” (1993) – TV movie about two West Point graduates during the first months of the Civil War and the people in their lives. The movie starred Dan Futterman, Clive Owen, Andre Braugher, Laura Linney and Josh Lucas.

8. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Intriguing Civil War melodrama about a wounded Union soldier convalescing at girls’ school in Mississippi. The movie starred Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

9. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” – Three men search for missing Confederate gold in this Spaghetti Western set in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Great movie that starred Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef.

10. “Gone With the Wind” (1939) – The best thing about this Oscar winner is its first half, which featured the trials and tribulations of Georgia belle, Scarlett O’Hara, during the war. The movie starred Oscar winners Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, along with Clark Gable, Olivia DeHavilland and Leslie Howard.

What are your favorite Civil War movies?

“GETTYSBURG” (1993) Review

 

 

“GETTYSBURG” (1993) Review

In 1974, author Michael Shaara’s novel about the famous three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was published. Titled ”The Killer Angels”, it told the story of the Gettysburg battle from the viewpoint of certain military leaders – Confederates James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee and Lewis Armistead and Union leaders John Buford and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The novel went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. But despite this accolade, Shaara never really made any money from the novel. Nor did he live long enough to reap the benefits of his creation in the years to come – including the movie adaptation called ”GETTYSBURG”

Released in the fall of 1993, ”GETTYSBURG” starred Tom Berenger as Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain, Sam Elliot as Buford Richard Jordan as Armistead, and Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee. The movie was directed by Ron Maxwell and produced by Ted Turner. And despite being over four hours long (the running time is officially four hours and fourteen minutes), managed to surprisingly maintain my interest without me falling asleep. And that is something that the 1939 Oscar winner, ”GONE WITH THE WIND” cannot boast. True, one could say that ”GETTYSBURG” is a movie filled with a great deal of combat in compare to Margaret Mitchell’s story, which featured no combat at all. But despite being a story about a famous battle, ”GETTYSBURG” featured a lot more narrative drama than it did combat action sequences. And yet, director Maxwell managed to keep the movie at a good pace – with the exception of one period in the story.

Ronald Maxwell had not only directed ”GETTYSBURG”, but also wrote the screen adaptation of Shaara’s novel. I must admit that Maxwell did a pretty good job in closely following the novel. Although there were times when I wish he had taken a few short cuts. Actually that time occurred in the series of conversations leading up to the final action sequence – namely Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Ridge on the third day. It simply lasted too damn long. I had found Chamberlain’s discovery of his first sergeant’s death, Longstreet’s instructions to Pickett and the latter’s brigade commanders, and Longstreet’s gloomy prediction about the Charge dramatically satisfying. But honestly . . . I could have done without Armistead’s speech about Virginians to the English observer – Lieutenant Colonel Fremantle (James Lancaster), Armistead’s last conversation with Richard Garnett, Chamberlain’s conversation with Hancock and the sequence featuring the Confederate troops cheering Lee. It was only during this last act that the movie threatened to bore me.

There had been complaints that ”GETTYSBURG” had failed to make any allusions to the slavery issue. Well, whoever made those complaints had obviously failed to see the movie. Not only did Longstreet commented about the slavery issue to Fremantle – before the latter immediately changed the subject – but an encounter with a runaway slave led to an interesting conversation about race, slavery and bigotry between Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s First Sergeant Kilrain (Kevin Conway). There were other aspects of the movie that I had also enjoyed – Buford’s commentary about the importance of the Gettysburg location, the aforementioned Longstreet’s prediction about Pickett’s Charge and Lee’s ironic comments about being a military commander. And I also enjoyed some of the movie’s more comic moments – Chamberlain’s efforts to prevent his brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell) from being too informal in the presence of the 20th Maine men and the conversation between Pickett and his commanders about Darwinism.

But ”GETTYSBURG” is, first and foremost, a war movie about a specific battle. And like many other war movies, it is filled with battle sequences. On the whole, I found them pretty satisfactory. One must remember that this movie had been released at least five years before Spielberg’s World War II drama, ”SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”. Which meant one should not expect the battle scenes to be particularly detailed in its violence in the same manner as the 1998 movie. In other words, most of the battles seemed to feature a great deal of musket fire, explosions, and bodies either falling to the ground or being blown sky high – something one would see in television miniseries like ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”or ”THE BLUE AND GRAY”. The most graphic scene I can recall occurred during a non-combatant scene that featured the field hospital filled with both bodies and body parts, where Longstreet visited one of his division commanders, John Bell Hood. However, I must commend at least two battle sequences. The actual charge up Cemetery Ridge had a great sweep, enhanced by Kees Van Oostrum’s photography from a helicopter. That effectiveness of that sweep was nearly ruined when the Confederate troops finally reached the Union position. There, the scene became nothing more than a confusing mess of both Union and Confederate troops merely shoving each other around. Too bad. Another memorable battle sequence featured Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s conflict with the 15th Alabama regiment on Little Round Top. The battle started in a generic manner as the two regiments exchanged musket fire. But once the 15th Alabama came across the 20th Maine’s position, the violence became rather detailed and spilled into hand-to-hand combat and short-range firing. I can even recall one Union soldier slamming the butt of his musket into the crotch of a Confederate. And the 20th Maine’s charge down Little Round Top turned out to be as exciting as the charge made by Pickett’s division up Cemetery Ridge.

But it was the cast that really impressed me – especially the performances of Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Richard Jordan, Kevin Conway, Stephen Lang and especially Jeff Daniels. Berenger did an excellent job of portraying the very human James “Pete” Longstreet, Lee’s ”Old Warhorse”. But his most poignant moment occurred when his Longstreet regretfully ordered Pickett to commence his charge without uttering a word. I was amazed at how the actor allowed Longstreet to age within seconds during this sequence. Martin Sheen portrayed Robert Lee beyond the historic icon as a brilliant, yet obviously flawed man. Both Conway and Lang gave vibrant performances as the Irish-born Buster Kilrain and George Pickett. Lewis Armistead turned out to be Richard Jordan’s last role and many have claimed that it was one of his best. I heartily agree. In fact, one of his finest moments on screen occurred when his Armistead rallied his troops up Cemetery Ridge by sticking his hat on his sword (which actually happened, by the way). Unfortunately, Jordan died of a brain tumor nearly three months before the movie’s theatrical release. For me, the heart and soul of ”GETTYSBURG”turned out to be Jeff Daniel’s masterful portrayal of the talented Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Not only did he managed to portray the Union leader as a flesh-and-blood human being, he also gave one of the best speeches – in which he attempted to convince the remnants of the mutinous 2nd Maine to join his regiment – on the silver screen. It seemed a shame that Daniels had never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.

I would not go as far to say that ”GETTYSBURG” is one of the best war movies ever made. Quite frankly, it is not. But it is one of the better Civil War movies I have ever seen. Not only did director/screenwriter Ronald Maxwell managed to adhere closely to Michael Shaara’s novel, but maintain a steady pace for a movie that turned out to be over four hours long. It presented its historical characters as human beings and not waxwork dummies that seemed prevalent in a good deal number of other Civil War movies. And more importantly, it provided a history lesson on one of the most famous battles during that particular period. I heartily recommend it.