“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.

“LOUISIANA” (1984) Review

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“LOUISIANA” (1984) Review

Twenty-nine years ago, HBO had aired a three-part miniseries about the life and travails of a nineteenth century Southern belle named Virginia Tregan. The miniseries was called “LOUISIANA” and it starred Margot Kidder and Ian Charleson. 

Directed by the late Philippe de Broca, “LOUISIANA” was based upon the“Fausse-Riviere” Trilogy, written by Maurice Denuzière, one of the screenwriters. It told the story of Virginia’s ruthless devotion to her first husband’s Louisiana cotton plantation called Bagatelle . . . and her love for the plantation’s overseer, an Englishman named Clarence Dandridge. The story begins in 1836 in which she returns to her home in Louisiana after spending several years at school in Paris, Unfortunately, Virginia discovers that the Tregan family plantation and most of its holdings have been sold to pay off her father’s debts. Only the manor house remains. Determined to recoup her personal fortune, Virginia manipulates the breakup of the affair between her wealthy godfather, Adrien Damvillier and his mistress, Anne McGregor in order to marry him and become mistress of Bagatelle. Virginia also becomes frustrated in her relationship with Clarence Dandridge, who refuses to embark upon a sexual relationship with her.

During their ten-year marriage, Virginia and Adrien conceive three children – Adrien II, Pierre and Julie. Not long after Julie’s birth, Adrien dies during a yellow fever epidemic. Virginia hints to Clarence that she would like to engage in a serious relationship with him. But when he informs her that they would be unable to consummate their relationship, due to an injury he had sustained during a duel, Virginia travels to Paris for a year-long separation. There, she meets her second husband, a French aristocrat named Charles de Vigors. They return to Louisiana and Virginia gives birth to her fourth and final child – Fabian de Vigors. Virginia and Charles eventually divorce due to his jealousy of his wife’s feelings for Clarence and his affairs. Fabian, who feels left out of the Damvillier family circle, accompanies his father back to France. During the next ten to fifteen years, Virginia experiences the death of her three children by Adrien, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The story ended in either the late 1860s or early 1870s with Virginia using a trick up her sleeves to save Bagatelle from a Yankee mercenary, whom she had first encountered on a riverboat over twenty years ago.

If I must be frank, “LOUISIANA” is not exactly “GONE WITH THE WIND” or“NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. But the 1984 production does bear some resemblance to both the movie and the other miniseries. I noticed that the character of Virginia Tregan Damvillier de Vigors strongly reminded me of Margaret Mitchell’s famous leading lady from “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Scarlett O’Hara. Both characters are strong-willed, ruthless, charming, manipulative, passionate and Southern-born. Both had married at least two or three times. Well, Scarlett acquired three husbands by the end of Mitchell’s tale. In “LOUISIANA”, Virginia married twice and became engaged once to some mercenary who wanted Bagatelle after the war. Both women had fallen in love with a man who was forbidden to them. Unlike Scarlett, Virginia eventually ended up with the man she loved, despite losing three of her children. Apparently, the saga’s original author felt that Virginia had to pay a high price for manipulating her way into a marriage with Adrien Damvillier.

“LOUISIANA” also shared a few aspects with another famous Civil War-era saga – namely John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Both sagas were based upon a trilogy of novels that spanned the middle decades of the 19th century – covering the antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mind you,“LOUISIANA” lacked the epic-style storytelling of the television adaptation of Jakes’ trilogy. Not even Virginia’s journey to France and her experiences during the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848, along with another journey to France during the first year of the Civil War could really give, “LOUISIANA” the epic sprawl that made the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy so memorable. However, the miniseries, like “NORTH AND SOUTH”, did depicted the darker side of the Old South’s plantation system. It did so through the eyes of four characters – Clarence Dandridge; one Bagatell slave named Brent; another Bagatelle slave named Ivy, and Virginia’s French-born servant/companion, Mignette.

Like both “NORTH AND SOUTH” and “GONE WITH THE WIND”,“LOUISIANA” suffered from some historical inaccuracies. I found it interesting that Bagatelle did not suffer the consequences from the Panic and Depression of 1837, which lasted until the mid-1840s. Especially since it was a cotton plantation. The economic crisis had not only led to a major recession throughout the United States, it also dealt a severe blow to the country’s Cotton Belt, thanks to a decline in cotton prices. Unlike the 1980 miniseries, “BEULAH LAND”,“LOUISIANA” never dealt with this issue, considering that the story began in 1836. I also found the miniseries’ handling of Revolution of 1848 in France and the California Gold Rush rather questionable, as well. Gold was first discovered by James Marshall in California, in January 1848. But news of the discovery did not reach the East Coast until August-September 1848, via an article in the New York Herald; and France became the first country to fully experience the Revolution of 1848 on February 23, 1848. Yet, according to the screenplay for “LOUISIANA”, Charles de Vigors first learned about the California gold discovery in a newspaper article in mid-June 1848 . . . sometime before France experienced the first wave of the Revolutions of 1848.

If there is one aspect of “LOUISIANA” that reigned supreme over both “NORTH AND SOUTH” and “GONE WITH THE WIND” are the costumes designed by John Jay. The costumes lacked the theatrical styles of the John Jakes miniseries and the 1939 Oscar winner. But they did project a more realistic image of the clothes worn during the period between 1830s and 1860s. And fans of “NORTH AND SOUTH” would immediately recognize the plantation and house that served as Bagatelle in “LOUISIANA”. In real life, it is Greenwood Plantation, located in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Aside from serving as Bagatelle, it also stood in as Resolute, the home of the venal Justin LaMotte in the first two miniseries of the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy.

The story for “LOUISIANA” seemed pretty solid. It seemed like a Louisiana version of “GONE WITH THE WIND”, but with the epic sprawl of “NORTH AND SOUTH”. But only in length . . . not in style. Margot Kidder, Ian Charleson, Andréa Ferréol, Len Cariou, Lloyd Bochner, Victor Lanoux, and Hilly Hicks all gave pretty good performances. Kidder and Charleson, surprisingly managed to create a strong screen chemistry. The miniseries indulged in the romance of the Old South. But as I had earlier pointed out, the miniseries also exposed its darker aspects – especially slavery. When the story first began with Virginia’s arrival in Louisiana with her maid, Mignette; the entire production seemed like a reflection of the “moonlight and magnolias” myth of the Old South, until the story shifted to the cotton harvest fête held at Bagatelle. In this scene, slavery reared its ugly head when the plantation’s housekeeper becomes suddenly ill, while serving a guest. Slavery and racism continued to be explored not only when Virginia’s conservative beliefs over slavery clash with Clarence’s more liberal ideals; but also with scenes featuring encounters between Bagatelle slave Brent and a racist neighbor named Percy Templeton, Mignette’s Underground Railroad activities, and a doomed romance between one of Virginia’s sons and a slave named Ivy. Yet, despite Virginia’s conservative views regarding slavery, the miniseries allowed audiences to sympathize with her through her romantic travails, the tragic deaths of her children and her post-war efforts to save Bagatelle from a slimy con artist-turned-carpetbagger named Oswald.

If you are expecting another “GONE WITH THE WIND” or “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, you will be disappointed. But thanks to Maurice Denuzière’s novels and the screenplay written by Dominique Fabre, Charles E. Israel and Etienne Périer; “LOUISIANA” ended up as an entertaining saga about a woman’s connections with a Louisiana plantation during the early and mid 19th century. For anyone interested in watching “LOUISIANA”, you might find it extremely difficult in finding the entire miniseries (six hours) either on VHS or DVD. And it might be slightly difficult in finding an edited version as well. The last time I had seen “LOUISIANA”, it aired on CINEMAX in the mid-1990s and had been edited to at least three hours. If you find a copy of the entire miniseries or the edited version, you have my congratulations.

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