The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 have been the subject of numerous books and a remarkable television movie, “The Missiles of October” (1974), in which William Devane and Martin Sheen portrayed John and Robert Kennedy, dealing cautiously and skillfully with a situation that very nearly escalated into a nuclear war. Now the episode is the basis for a large-scale film adaptation, and while the name over the title is Kevin Costner’s (he plays presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell), many will see the real dramatic center of the picture in the subtle, convincing performance of Bruce Greenwood as JFK.
Audiences will recognize Greenwood for different reasons. Some will recall his powerful turns in two of Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s finest small-budget films, “Exotica” (1994) and “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997). Others will remember him fondly as Thomas Veil, the “Fugitive”-like hero of the short-lived UPN series “Nowhere Man” (1995-96). And most will have seen his work in such recent studio productions as “Double Jeopardy” (in which he played Ashley Judd’s villainous husband), “Rules of Engagement” (playing the National Security advisor), and “Here on Earth” (as the doomed heroine’s father). But certainly he never expected ever to portray John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and took on the role with considerable trepidation.
“You never have those kinds of expectations, you know,” the gregarious actor said during a recent Dallas interview. “It was a shock. Even just going to the audition, you think, ‘Well, sure, I’ll go, but I’ll only go because nothing’s going to happen, I’ll only go because I’ll be asked to leave the room. It doesn’t matter if I fail, because it’s only these two or three people [who will see me].’ Then [after getting the part] you realize that it’s going to be twenty or thirty million, and it keeps you awake at night.”
Early on, Greenwold determined not to look at earlier portrayals of Kennedy, such as Devane’s. “I didn’t want to rip [off] what other people had done, and at the same time if I found out I had made a choice that was essentially the same as another actor, I didn’t want to change it because another actor had done it, so I just decided to sidestep all those conflicts and problems by not watching [them].”
One of the major elements of the performance, of course, involved getting the distinctive Kennedy accent right. “I worked on it throughout [filming], actually,” Greenwood recalled. “I listened to tapes ad infinitum. I’d lie in bed listening to tapes before I’d drift off to sleep…. I literally went to sleep listening to them.” Whatever the method, the result is astonishingly convincing.
Greenwood is pleased with the early feedback not only on his performance, but on the film as a whole. While noting that the script necessarily gives a “condensed” account by compressing the events of thirteen days into a span of just over two hours, he said: “I gather that the historians that have watched it have all essentially signed off on the idea that the broad strokes are all there.” He feels, therefore, that the picture will serve a useful instructional purpose: “I think people have no idea how close we came [to nuclear conflict],” he observed. But he also expected people to respond to the film as entertainment: “I think one of the great things about this movie is that you can enjoy it as a pure thriller, as a big, glossy Hollywood thriller, because it’s not just a dry telling of history, which it could have been–but under [director Roger] Donaldson’s hand, he’s an action-oriented guy [his previous films include “Smash Palace,” “The Bounty,” “No Way Out,” “Cocktail” “The Getaway,” “Species” and “Dante’s Peak”], and he managed to infuse it with a lot of visual activity…. I think people are going to come out feeling they’ve had a great theatre experience as well as they’ve been invited to think about something we’ve all kind of forgotten about.”
As to why such an exciting story hadn’t been told on the big screen before, Greenwood noted the success of such pictures as “Titanic” and “Apollo 13” in persuading executives that narratives with well-known outcomes could still attract audiences. And the involvement of a boxoffice name like Costner’s was instrumental, too. “It’s a tough sell until you see the movie,” he noted wryly. “And then you realize how dramatic it is. But I think convincing people that it could be as visceral and as fast-paced and as dramatic must have been tough.”
Since the studio honchos were eventually persuaded, it now remains only to win over the viewing public, and Bruce Greenwood’s exceptional recreation of the assassinated president should play a major role in doing that. “Thirteen Days,” distributed by New Line Cinema, will open in New York and Los Angeles on December 25 (in time for Oscar consideration), and expand nationwide on January 12, 2001.