It starts with a bang. The biggest bang, in fact, since the Big Bang. Parching the screen like an exploding sunset and swelling with terminal ferocity, the sight of a mushroom cloud in full bulge is as thoroughly incomprehensible as its very purpose. We're talking total global obliteration here and, with its opening image of a thundering atom bomb, Thirteen Days doesn't waste a moment thumping home the dramatic stakes. Win - and you save the world. Lose - and it's Earthling flambé.
It's an aggressive, explicit gesture and, thanks to a robust cast and pressure-cooker script, it's fair to say that the shockwaves pulsing from its explosive prologue resonate throughout the movie. Based on fact and shot like a thriller, had Oliver Stone tackled this, it would have been all pretense and portents. But helmer Roger Donaldson (No Way Out) collars the dramatic dynamics to craft a pacey seat-jerker hooked on how three men talked their way out of armageddon.
Taking bestseller The Kennedy Tapes as its prime source, the emphasis here is on brisk, muscley dialogue instead of gung-ho heroics. Of course, the current fashion for Hollywood thrillers is to use dialogue as a precursor to promiscuous bullet-spewing. Yet Thirteen Days gets its heart-thumps from keeping its finger twitching on the trigger, and as such, makes for eerie, compelling viewing.
So while the movie's occasional bursts of action serve as effective breathers from the claustrophobia of an essentially diplomatic crisis, it's the White House pow-wows that deliver the shudders. Much like All The President's Men, this is a fist-on-chin, loosened-tie, mopped-brow movie, and chances are you'll be feeling the same as the trio dodge one oncoming problem only to be caught in the headlights of another.
A lot's already been made of this being trumpeted as Kevin Costner's comeback after plucking one too many turkeys, but it's far from a star vehicle. Portraying aide Kenny O'Donnell as every bit the everyman burdened by an unbearable secret, it's a subtle, enigmatic turn, but this is an ensemble piece and there's not one weak link. Like Costner's Bostonian drawl, Bruce Greenwood's physical unlookielikeness to JFK takes some getting used to, but his portrayal of an all-too-human diplomat is totally convincing. Teamed with Steven Culp's dead-ringer Bobby, they make for an awesome double-act.
Of course, like Titanic, you know how it all ends - but that doesn't make the journey any less thrilling. A great story is all in the telling, and this rivetting thriller will have you talking and thinking long after the lights have gone up.
All The President's Men with less paper-shuffling and more desk-thumping. What could have been a bore-inspiring history lesson has been crafted into a nervy, gripping thriller that engages the brain and shreds the nerves. It's tight. It's tense. And Costner, at last, is ace.