Monday, January 8, 2007

Thirteen Days

Source Material: Thirteen Days by Robert F. Kennedy and The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow

Director: Roger Donaldson

Screenplay by: David Self

Year: 2000

Cast Highlights:
Kevin Costner: Kenny O'Donnell
Lucinda Jenney: Helen O'Donnell
Caitlin Wachs: Kathy O'Donnell
Bruce Greenwood: John F. Kennedy
Frank Wood: McGeorge Bundy
Steven Culp: Robert F. Kennedy
Dylan Baker: Robert McNamara
Bill Smitrovich: Gen. Maxwell Taylor
Henry Strozier: Dean Rusk
Michael Fairman: Adlai Stevenson
Tim Kelleher: Ted Sorensen
Len Cariou: Dean Acheson
Peter White: John McCone
Kevin Conway: General Curtis LeMay
Elya Baskin: Anotoly Dobrynin

Thirteen Days covers the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In actuality, it is more of a historical film than a biopic, as its focus is quite narrow. However, I decided that it deserved particular consideration, as it is probably the most accurate cinematic rendering of the Kennedys. While Bruce Greenwood doesn't look exactly like Jack Kennedy, he beautifully captures the body language, cadence, and personality of the president. The same goes for Stephen Culp as Bobby Kennedy. For that matter, all of the supporting actors turn in credible performances, particularly Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara, Michael Fairman as Adlai Stevenson, and Len Cariou as Dean Acheson. Effectively, these three become external representations of the distinct perspectives on the Cuban Missile Crisis, demonstrating the dangers, both political and physical, that the missile crisis represented.

Actually, if there is any criticism to be made of the movie, it lies in the central role given to Kenny O'Donnell. In real life, O'Donnell was not a member of Kennedy's most trusted circle. Apparently, O'Donnell's real-life son, Kevin, contributed generously to the production; in return, he demanded that his father be given a central role. Added to this inaccuracy is the fact that Kevin Costner, with his flat, midwestern tones, often seems adrift when attempting to imitate a Massachusetts accent. He overexaggerates, turning in a Kennedy impersonation that seems more suited to The Simpson's Mayor "Diamond Joe" Quimby than to an serious consideration of Kennedy's presidency. Finally, Costner doesn't look anything like the real O'Donnell.

In spite of this, however, Thirteen Days is a tautly-written, beautifully filmed movie. The cinematography is gorgeous, seamlessly integrating stock footage and black and white film to evoke the nostalgia so strongly connected to the Kennedys. It is a definitive historical movie, and sets a standard for the genre.

Memorable Quotes

Kenny O'Donnell: If the sun comes up tomorrow, it is only because of men of good will. That is all there is between us and the devil.

Dobrynin: [to RFK] You're a good man; your brother is a good man. I assure you there are other good men. Let us hope the will of good men is enough to counter the terrible strength of this thing that was put in motion.

Dean Acheson: Gentlemen, for the last fifteen years, I've fought at this table alongside your predecessors in the struggle against the Soviet. Now I do not wish to seem melodramatic, but I do wish to impress upon you a lesson I learned with bitter tears and great sacrifice. The Soviet understands only one language: action. Respects only one word: force.

Kenny O'Donnell: The point is, you trade our missiles in Turkey for theirs in Cuba, they're gonna force us into trade after trade, until finally, a couple of months from now they demand something we won't trade, like Berlin, and we do end up in a war. Not to mention that long before that happens this administration will be politically dead.
Robert Kennedy: I don't care if this administration ends up in the freaking toilet! We don't do a deal tonight there won't be any administration.

Adlai Stevenson: [to Ambassador Zorin] All right, sir, let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate-range missiles in sites in Cuba? Yes or no? Don't wait for the translation! Yes or no?
Ambassador Zorin: I am not in the American courtroom, and I do not wish to respond to questions that a prosecutor would put to the defendant. You will get all the answers to your questions as this session progresses.
Adlai Stevenson: You are in the courtroom of world opinion right now, and you can answer yes or no. You have denied that they exist and I want to know if I have understood you correctly.
Ambassador Zorin: Continue your statement; you will get your answers in due course. Don't worry.
Adlai Stevenson: [asking the Russian ambassador if there are any Soviet missile bases in Cuba] I am prepared to wait for my answer till Hell freezes over, if that's your decision.

Physical resemblance: 8/10
Historical Accuracy: 9/10
Acting: 9/10
Production Values: 10/10
Cinematography: 10/10
Directing: 10/10

Overall: 10/10

Monday, January 1, 2007

JFK: Reckless Youth

Source Material: JFK: Reckless Youth by Nigel Hamilton

Director: Harry Winer

Teleplay by: William Broyles Jr.

Year: 1993

Made for Television

Cast Highlights:
Patrick Dempsey: John F. Kennedy
Terry Kinney: Joseph P. Kennedy
Loren Dean: Joe Kennedy, Jr.
Yolanda Jilot: Inga Arvad
Robin Tunney: Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy
Andrew Lowery: Lem Billings
Stan Cahill: Torb Macdonald
Claire Forlani: Ann Cannon
Malachy McCourt: Honey Fitz
Diana Scarwid: Rose Kennedy

A solid biopic in the classic mold. JFK: Restless Youth covers Kennedy's life from 1936, when he was a student at Choate, to 1945, when he ran for a congressional seat in Massachusetts, using flashbacks to fill in key elements of his earlier childhood. The particular strength of this film is that it explores the elements that formed the young Kennedy, allowing the audience to draw comparisons to the older man. The central conflict comes from the fact that young Jack is sandwiched between a highly competitive older brother and a emotionally abusive father. While his brother and father use bullying to get their way, young Jack learns the value of humor and charm. This, of course, becomes one of the key elements of his personality.

Outstanding performances across the board; Dempsey, Kinney, and Tunney are particularly good. While Patrick Dempsey doesn't look very much like JFK, he does a great job of capturing the accent and mannerisms of the young Kennedy. The same goes for Terry Kinney, who displays the charm and mercurial temper that made Joseph Kennedy simultaneously powerful and one of the most reviled politicians of his day. Finally, Tunney manages to completely occupy her role, turning what is essentially a bit role into a major part of the story.

In terms of historical accuracy, the film does a fairly decent job of remaining true to its source material. In fact, I detected only one chronological inaccuracy: it moved the date of Rosemarie Kennedy's lobotomy up a few years for dramatic contrast. Beyond that, it ignores a few events, such as JFK's brief sojourn at Stanford and the London School of Economics, and minorly changes a few others, such as the fact that Kennedy wandered around Europe with Lem Billings, not Torb Macdonald. I could only find one major anachronism: when JFK goes to the basement to get his uniform, he passes an Evian box. Evian was not available in the United States until the 1980's.

Overall, however, it is a highly accurate and thought-provoking biopic.

Memorable Quotes:
JFK (praying): Dear God, make me day. Amen.
Lem Billings (his roommate): That's a perfect prayer for you, Ken. You're a bad influence. I'd never get in trouble if it weren't for you.

On board the PT 109:
JFK: Tell me, Randall: is there anything about me you don't like besides me being a rich, yankee, Catholic, Ivy League officer?
Randall: Well, that pretty much covers it, but I could probably come up with some more if you give me a while, Sir.
JFK: Well, take all the time you need. It's going to be a long war.

Physical resemblance: 4/10
Historical Accuracy: 7/10
Acting: 9/10
Production Values: 8/10
Cinematography: 9/10
Directing: 9/10

Overall: 8/10


Source Material:

Director: Robert Dornhelm

Teleplay by: Hank Steinberg

Year: 2002

Made for Television

Cast Highlights:
Linus Roache: Robert F. Kennedy
James Cromwell: Lyndon Johnson
David Paymer: Dick Goodwin
Martin Donovan: John F. Kennedy
Ving Rhames: Judge Jones
Kevin Hare: Edward Kennedy
Sean Gregory Sullivan: Steve Smith
Sergio Di Zio: Adam Walinsky
Marnie McPhail: Ethel Kennedy
Jacob Vargas: Cesar Chavez
Corinne Conley: Rose Kennedy
Phil Craig: John McCone
Jacob Vargas: Cesar Chavez

Robert F. Kennedy was a profoundly interesting historical figure. As the clear successor to JFK, he struggled to escape from his brother's shadow. In the process, he tried to come to terms with many of the most pressing problems of the 1960's, including racism, segregation, migrant worker's rights, and the war in Vietnam. He deserves a great biopic, one that explores his complexity and impact on the American political scene.

This isn't that biopic.

This is not to say that RFK doesn't try. It begins on November 22, 1963, the day JFK was shot, and covers Robert Kennedy's personal and political development up to his assassination in 1968. This is rich dramatic material: over the course of that five years, Robert Kennedy transformed himself from a vicious defender of his brother's policies into the preeminent voice of liberalism in the United States. Unfortunately, RFK shows that development through a series of increasingly tedious dialogues between Bobby and his dead brother. These are stagy and poorly filmed, and Martin Donovan does a terrible impression of JFK. Add in Linus Roache's now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't impression of a Kennedy accent, repetitious and cloying guitar/harmonica music, and crudely integrated stock footage, and you have an almost irredeemable mess. The only bright spots are a subtle, gentle performance by Jacob Vargas as Cesar Chavez, and excerpts from RFK's speeches. These pieces of sterling writing, however, only serve to demonstrate the clunky, cheesy nature of the rest of the script.

Memorable Quotes:
Cesar Chavez: We're not here for handouts, just the right to work for a fair, honest wage.
RFK: That's what anyone deserves...What's so funny?
Cesar Chavez: I didn't know what to expect from you.
RFK: You think I do?

JFK: You can't fool a New Yorker. He knows an asshole when he sees one.
RFK: You think that's how I come across?
JFK: Maybe it's who you really are. Out for yourself...
RFK: Self-righteous, obsessive...
JFK: Maybe it's the real you they're seeing.
RFK: Maybe it's who I really am.

Physical resemblance: 5/10
Historical Accuracy: 7/10
Acting: 5/10
Production Values: 4/10
Cinematography: 4/10
Directing: 4/10

Overall: 5/10