The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 remains a chillingly dramatic episode in recent American history, and scripter David Self and director Roger Donaldson have done a solid, workmanlike job in bringing it to the big screen. The picture, bearing a title taken from Robert Kennedy’s book on the event but clearly based on a wide variety of sources, conveys the intensity of the decision-making process which ultimately averted a nuclear catastrophe (just as the far less opulently-produced TV-movie “The Missiles of October” did back in 1974); and the general level of historical ignorance prevalent in our country today insures that it will serve as a salutary lesson to many viewers about how close the world came to annihilation less than forty years ago, and thus fill a useful educational purpose. That being said, it has to be admitted that “Thirteen Days,” while intelligently crafted and obviously well-intentioned, is also a very conventional piece of work, and one perhaps too hagiographical in tone toward the Kennedy brothers to seem very contemporary in its attitudes. It’s admirable without, in most respects, being at all exceptional.

The filmmakers differentiate their approach from that of the television special (which many still remember with a touch of reverence) by telling the story not from an omniscient authorial viewpoint but from the perspective of one of the lesser participants, specifically Kenneth P. O’Donnell, a presidential aide who witnessed the internal administration debate on how to respond to the Russian threat. (O’Donnell was JFK’s appointments secretary, a position which gave him control over access to the chief executive. He was a close friend of Robert Kennedy and, after the senator’s assassination, declined into alcoholism. He died in 1977.) The idea of using him as the eyes-and-ears of the audience isn’t necessarily a bad one (though it means that the Russian side of the dispute isn’t dramatized as it was in “The Missiles of October,” and so the coverage here isn’t quite as thorough), but its implementation is flawed by the casting of Kevin Costner in the role. It’s easy to understand the decision, of course; Costner remains a boxoffice name (despite the failure of his recent vehicles), and his participation probably got the expensive project greenlighted (he serves as one of the picture’s producers). But placing a recognizable face like his at center stage creates an imbalance in the narrative; the focus is put on him to the extent that it sometimes seems as though Kenny O’Donnell is running the show–too frequently, the relatively minor figure (he was played in the TV version by Stewart Moss, who was hardly a household name and appeared only briefly on the sidelines) is here given the task of dissuading participants from taking wrong steps or prodding them to act more constructively. It’s difficult to accept the premise that John and Robert were quite so susceptible to his suggestions as this picture implies. Moreover, Costner struggles with the role. He’s by no means terrible: certainly he shakes off the lethargy that’s marked his recent starring turns, and makes O’Donnell a likable fellow. But his performance is still a trifle pallid, and his Boston accent so bad that it makes you glad he never seriously attempted a British one in 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” (The filmmakers try to camouflage this by surrounding Costner with youngsters spouting even worse accents as O’Donnell’s children, but the ploy doesn’t work.) A further problem with Costner’s presence is, of course, that some viewers, unable to separate the honest attempt at historical accuracy represented by this film from the speculative mischief committed by Oliver Stone in “JFK”–and probably not terribly well informed themselves–will be wondering how an assistant to the president wound up some years later in New Orleans, with an entirely different bad accent, trying to figure out who was behind his former boss’s murder.)

Happily, there are compensations in the other roles. Bruce Greenwood makes a superb JFK. He avoids mere imitation, capturing through modest physical gestures and his commanding presence the essence of the president without exaggeration. (He gets the cadences of the voice exactly right, too, not coming close to caricature as the otherwise sound William Devane did in “The Missiles of October.”) Steven Culp is nearly as impressive as RFK, nailing the attorney general’s combination of intelligence and aggressiveness. (Martin Sheen was fine in the TV movie, too. Of course, he’s now been promoted to playing a president himself.) The supporting players are sometimes chosen for their likenesses to the historical figures they’re embodying (Walter Adrian’s LBJ is an example), but more often they exhibit the spirit of the individuals more than their physical characteristics (Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara, Michael Fairman as Adlai Stevenson, Kevin Conway as Curtis LeMay and Bill Smitrovich as Maxwell Taylor are cases in point). In general the ensemble is a fine one, and production designer Dennis Washington has done them proud by creating a reasonable facsimile of the White House for them to work in.

“Thirteen Days” is thus somewhat more than a classroom tool: it will be valuable from an educational standpoint, but it’s also a pretty well-shaped thriller, even if its denouement is likely to be known even by the most otiose viewer. The more jaded among us may, however, wonder whether, after the startling satire of “Dr. Strangelove”–released, astonishingly, just a year after the events depicted here–this sort of near-doomsday exercise can retain the impact it might once have had. (Even in 1963, the glumly serious “Fail-Safe” proved a non-starter.) And if one really wants to be cynical about it, what if the makers had had the audacity to portray the episode through the lens of Kubrickian black comedy, doing on the Kennedys the sort of job that Andrew Fleming inflicted on Nixon in last year’s genial Watergate farce “Dick”? (Imagine, for instance, JFK engaging in White House assignations while the crisis was unfolding, or being bothered by his wife or kids, or having to deal with a brash young Teddy.) Of course, the sort of treatment that’s considered harmless when applied to a disgraced conservative president would be a lot trickier when used on a liberal icon, and a martyred one at that; but if a filmmaker had the guts to attempt it, it just might result in an edgily amusing flick. In the absence of such an effort, the present film, as straightforward and unadventurous as it is, does a reasonably good job of resurrecting an important chapter in the Cold War. What it lacks in cinematic flair it makes up for in the sincerity of its approach and the remarkable performances of Greenwood and Culp.