To describe this as a political drama as two and a half hours of guys talking to each other, would be a bit misleading. Yes, that’s exactly what it is, but it’s also one of the most astonishing, entertaining historical thrillers ever made. The script crackles with life from the start, ratcheting up the tension and never letting go for a moment, finding the humanity in true events and giving us the finest yet cinematic examination of JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
We see it through the eyes of Kenny O’Donnell (Costner), special assistant to President Kennedy (Greenwood). It’s October 1962 and spy plane photos show the White House that the Soviets are installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Over the next two weeks, O’Donnell will try to advise both Jack and Bobby (Culp) Kennedy as they cope with their gung ho military advisors, UN pressures and the strangely silent Russians. All the while walking the knife edge between the Cold War and World War III.
We’ll probably never know exactly how close the world came to nuclear destruction, but if this film is as accurate as its makers claim (it’s based on exhaustive research and interviews, and much of the dialog comes from White House tapes), we were very close several times over these 13 days. Donaldson and Self seize the story’s possibilities and create a real stunner of a film–it’s expertly assembled in every way. The characters are believable and fascinating, especially President Kennedy, who’s brilliantly played by Greenwood blending the mythical icon with a raw, struggling human being. And once we get used to his odd accent, Costner does a nice job as the everyman we identify with–our eyes and ears in the halls of power. Every scene sizzles with possibility, sending our brains spinning off with the characters as they imagine what is happening and what might happen next in this high stakes poker game. There are a few odd moments–a strange drifting into black and white, sequences that threaten to undo the carefully established perspective–but it’s such a crackling heart-stopper of a film that we barely mind. Just don’t have a large drink beforehand; there’s not a minute in here you can afford to miss.