13 Days

13 Days (2001)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Dylan Baker
Extras: Commentary Track, Historical Commentary and Biographies, Historical Information Subtitle Track, Documentaries, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes and so much more

"Thirteen Days" is the title that New Line has selected to usher in their new Infinifilm line of highly interactive DVDs. On the surface this may seem to be an unusual choice as the movie didn’t do all that well at the box office and received most of its publicity due to the fact that the latest "Lord of the Rings" theatrical trailer was played before all showings. But what finer subject for in-depth DVD treatment than a movie based on a very real and harrowing historical event? This DVD is The Cuban Missile Crisis 101 — a complete educational and entertainment experience all crammed onto one tiny silver disc.

I never did get around to seeing "Thirteen Days" in the theater (and the meager box office tallies indicate that I wasn’t the only one) but the subject matter is certainly intriguing and I was happy to get the chance to sit down with a preview copy of the DVD. After two and a half hours spent watching the film I came away amazed at what I had seen and I hadn’t even begun to explore the plentiful bonus features.

"Thirteen Days" chronicles those two weeks in October 1962 when the world came the closest it ever has to unleashing an all-out nuclear war. Before I get into a discussion of the plot of the film I just want to point out that director Roger Donaldson does a wonderful job in never allowing the specter of a potential nuclear armageddon to be downplayed or forgotten. Many scene transitions and dissolves are made up of stylized images of nuclear detonations and this device is used to great effect to force the viewer to constantly remember exactly what was at stake during those uncertain days.

This film is seen through the person of Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy who was never a household name but who had direct access to the president and was a key member of his trusted inner circle. What starts out as just another day in the Kennedy White House quickly escalates as the president is shown images taken by a U2 spyplane over Cuba that offer visual proof that the Soviet Union is placing medium range ballistic missiles a mere 90 miles away from U.S. shores.

President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) is adamant that the missiles must not be allowed to become operational but he and his staff are divided over how best to achieve that aim. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by General Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich), and even old foreign policy hand Dean Acheson (Len Cariou) favor a pre-emptive airstrike followed by a full invasion of Cuba. Dissenters within the group are afraid to voice their concerns but the president himself is not quite ready to undertake action that could lead to an all-out war with the Soviet Union.

After the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba undertaken the previous year, JFK is understandably suspicious of the "expert" military advice he is being given and turns to the two men he trusts the most to work out a solution. His younger brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp), is given the task of chairing a select Executive Committee (ExComm) to come up with potential alternatives while old college chum Kenny O’Donnell is there to act as a sounding board and political arm twister. In the interim, President Kennedy gives his approval for a naval blockade of Cuba to halt any further shipment of missiles to the island. What ensues are thirteen days in which the president comes ever closer to giving the hawks on his staff the go-ahead to set into action a course of events that he knows will surely escalate into full-out conflict.

Movies like "Thirteen Days" are a tricky proposition. It takes skilled direction and capable acting to transform the dry transcripts of the real high-level meetings into an engaging cinematic experience. While there are a few action sequences involving high-speed aircraft and battle-ready naval ships, the most dramatic and engrossing moments happen within the confines of White House meeting rooms and the Oval Office. From beginning to end "Thirteen Days" grabbed my attention and never once let up and that is a testament to the strength of the script and the abilities of the actors and filmmakers involved.

Performances were, on the whole, quite good. Kevin Costner really should have learned from his "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" debacle and shelved any attempt at affecting a Boston accent as the real Kenny O’Donnell doesn’t seem to have had a very strong accent in the first place. But other than that he delivered his usual solid performance and this is precisely the type of role that he excels at playing. The remaining cast is a veritable who’s who of familiar, yet hard to put a name to, faces. Bruce Greenwood’s JFK is an enigma who exudes strength even during his most uncertain hours and Steven Culp seems to have cornered the market for portraying Bobby Kennedy on both the big and small screens.

Director Roger Donaldson would appear at first glance to be an odd choice to helm this type of film as his most recent works such as "Dante’s Peak" and "Species" haven’t exactly been heavy-hitting drama. Perhaps his earlier collaboration with Kevin Costner on 1987’s splendid political thriller "No Way Out" played some role in his selection. But, as previously mentioned, Donaldson handles the material with a deft hand and is able to convey the events in a very workmanlike manner that allows the real-life events to speak for themselves while still adding a little flash to the proceedings.

So then, how does "Thirteen Days" look and sound on DVD? Here’s a hint — this is a New Line disc. I could probably stop right there but here goes anyway.

"Thirteen Days" is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is framed at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. During the extended opening credits sequence I noticed a bit of unintentional film grain and there is some more noticeable grain whenever stock footage is used. As for the rest, this transfer is remarkably good.

Colors are fully saturated and well-balanced and the palette ranges from the subdued hues of a darkened office to the garishness of a nuclear explosion. Black levels are incredibly dense and even the darkest scenes are full of fine detail. The image is also uniformly sharp (except for the stock footage) with only minimal edge enhancement evident. Nicks and blemishes on the film elements are also nowhere to be found. Finally, the transfer is completely free of compression artifacts.

The film does make use of a number of stylized photographic techniques that must be taken into account in any review of the video quality of the DVD. For instance, some early scenes begin in black and white and then slowly dissolve into color in an obvious attempt to add a veneer of historical accuracy to the film. And, as stated before, the many scenes using stock footage are of varying quality. On top of that, the numerous sequences depicting nuclear explosions are intentionally distorted and harsh looking. Finally, some long stretches also exhibit a very fine degree of film grain again meant to lend a documentary feel to the picture. But, bearing these facts in mind, the video on the DVD is an accurate representation of the filmmaker’s intent and is quite pleasing to the eye.

Audio is presented in an English <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>. Although early reports indicated that a <$DTS,DTS> track would be included, the sheer volume of bonus features forced the removal of that option. But the included soundtrack is more than solid and offers a very pleasing listening experience.

As a dialogue-driven film, "Thirteen Days" presents a very front and center sound mix. Surround use does kick in for the musical score and the more action-oriented scenes and is very effective when it does so (the sound of jets suddenly exploding from the rear speakers actually made me jump out of my chair). Dynamic range is also quite broad with plenty of nice, deep bass to augment many scenes. Most importantly, dialogue is always clear and well integrated with the music and sound effects to offer an audio mix that is perfectly balanced between the three elements. This is good stuff but it just isn’t the type of film that is designed to be home theater demonstration material.

Now we get to that part of the review that attempts to explain what exactly is an Infinifilm release. To sum it up, it’s a boatload of extras laid out in an intuitive manner to convey as much background about the film as is humanly possible. The first thing that is important to know is that all extras (with one exception) can be accessed through a standard DVD menu as well as through the Infinifilm interface so the casual DVD browser isn’t being left behind.

Also new to this release are helpful question marks that liberally pepper the DVD menus. Clicking on these bring up helpful definitions for such terms as <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and Dolby Digital sound. It’s clear that New Line is trying hard to keep things simple and easy while at the same time advancing the state of the DVD art.

The Infinifilm features are divided into two sections. First is the "Beyond the Movie" area that gathers together all of the extras dealing with the historical events that inspired the film. Next is the "All Access Pass" section that contains bonus features dealing with the film itself. As an added bonus, each and every video-based extra is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>. Let’s take a look at these in order.

Under the "Beyond the Movie" header we find the historical figures <$commentary,commentary track>. This track features snippets culled from recordings made by the actual people involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as contemporary, screen-specific comments made by Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita; Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, authors of the book "The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis" upon which the film is based; and a few others. This is a very engaging and educational commentary and it’s great to hear the real-life voices behind the story.

Next up is what’s billed as a historical information subtitle track. This feature offers up a wealth of scene-specific historical facts to flesh out the action and dialogue seen and heard on the screen. I really enjoy this type of feature as it allows for unfettered viewing of the feature film while still imparting a great deal of valuable information. Incidentally, this is the only extra that can’t be accessed on its own outside of the Infinifilm interface.

The "Beyond the Movie" section also offers up a surprising number of historical figures biographies. Each bio is a short video segment that presents various experts discussing the person in question. These are quite interesting and beat the heck out of the static text pages typically used for this type of feature.

Finally, this Infinifilm section also includes the 48 minute documentary "Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis." This is a new, original feature created for this DVD and it is excellent. Featuring many of the same participants from the <$commentary,commentary track> and the historical figures bios, as well as a number of new faces, the documentary is a combination of vintage materials and modern scholarly work that really adds to one’s knowledge of this important historical event.

Now we move on to the "All Access Pass" section of the disc that contains features pertaining to the film itself. First up is the filmmakers commentary that includes six different participants including director Roger Donaldson, actor/producer Kevin Costner, producer Armyan Bernstein, executive producer Michael De Luca, screenwriter David Self, and visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister. Trying to include comments from these various individuals leads to a track that is only rarely screen-specific. That being said, this is a very good commentary that sheds much light on how the film was made and what hurdles had to be jumped just to get it green-lighted.

Next up is the 11 minute featurette "Bringing History To the Silver Screen." While this would at first appear to be the usual promotional fluff piece, it is in fact a very interesting examination of the unique difficulties inherent in making a historically accurate film that still retains some degree of dramatic impact.

This is followed by a shorter visual effects featurette that offers five different angles for viewing the evolution of the special effects created for the high-speed, low-level F8U-1P Crusader flight over the Cuban missile installation that appears in the film. This is preceded by a short introduction by visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister in which he explains how the scene was created and how the DVD viewer can best appreciate the various angles.

This section of the Infinifilm feature also presents nine deleted scenes that can be viewed with or without the director’s commentary. While none of these scenes are particularly enlightening, it’s nice to see them and to be able to hear the reasoning behind their exclusion from the final film.

Rounding out the "All Access Pass" features are a few cast and crew filmographies and the film’s original theatrical trailer presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>.

The disc also offers up a few DVD-ROM extras including the entire shooting script, which can be printed out or read while the film progresses, as well as links to the "Thirteen Days" and New Line websites.

So then, what exactly is Infinifilm? Well, New Line has been nice enough to offer a menu entry that answers that very question. While most of these excellent bonus features are available individually through the standard menu interface, you can also choose to have them integrated within the film itself by selecting the Play Infinifilm option. At every chapter stop during the movie a translucent blue bar appears at the bottom of the screen offering links to content related to the on-screen action. Selecting one of these links takes the viewer out of the movie to view the bonus feature then returns them to their previous spot in the film when they’re finished. The Infinifilm interface works very well and is a great way to wade through all of the bonus features in a very intuitive and logical way.

While any film that depicts real-life events is bound to meet with some disagreement among critics and scholars, I found "Thirteen Days" to be a very entertaining, educational, and even-handed account of one of the most potentially explosive events in our nation’s history. No one can ever know for sure just how close we came to nuclear war but if this film is even the tiniest bit accurate then the answer is too damn close. The willingness of those in charge at the time to gamble with the lives of millions is appalling and we can thank the few level heads in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. for peering over the brink and deciding the better of it.

I’ll leave it to those with multiple initials after their names to debate the historical merit of the film. All I can say is that "Thirteen Days" is one of the better films I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing and I would encourage even those who may think the subject matter dry and boring to give it a shot.

New Line has certainly gone above and beyond the call of duty with this fine DVD presentation. Featuring their usual stellar video and audio quality, the disc also ushers in the new Infinifilm series in fine style. Taken on their own merit the plentiful extras are universally excellent. But, with the debut of the Infinifilm interface, New Line is offering viewers an inventive new way in which to experience everything this disc has to offer. I really can’t recommend "Thirteen Days" enough.