Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the election almost upon us and the Obama drama Southside With You coming soon to theaters, we tweak an old Watch This topic and hail some of our favorite films about real U.S. Presidents.

Thirteen Days (2000)

After seeking to unravel a conspiracy regarding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1991’s JFK, Kevin Costner opted to spend time alongside America’s 35th commander-in-chief in Thirteen Days, a gripping (if factually suspect) recounting of 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. Based on Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s book, director Roger Donaldson’s film takes its greatest license with regards to its focus—specifically, on Costner’s Kenneth O’Donnell, the special assistant to JFK, who’s here elevated to the role of prime facilitator during the emergency. It’s a portrayal based less in fact than in fiction, but it’s a gripping one nonetheless, and serves as a handy dramatic entryway into the corridors of Oval Office power, where President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp, bearing an uncanny resemblance to his real-life counterpart) struggle to deal with the rapidly escalating dilemma posed by the revelation that the USSR has installed nuclear-capable missiles in Castro’s communist Cuba.

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As befitting a story rooted in deliberation, Donaldson does little to directorially gussy up Thirteen Days, filming in a straightforward manner that allows concentration to remain, throughout, on the strained, harried faces of his under-pressure protagonists. Forced to navigate a diplomatic minefield in which military commanders on both sides seem all too eager to court catastrophic conflict, and in which communication with the Soviets must take place through telling naval and air-force maneuvers, O’Donnell and the Kennedys find themselves zigzagging in and out of tactical trouble. The resultant action takes place in an atmosphere of perpetual fear that war might not only be imminent, but that it might be the only logical conclusion to the scenario at hand.

While the story’s non-WWIII ending is well-known, Thirteen Days is tautly scripted by David Self and superbly acted, from Greenwood’s beleaguered but brave JFK and Culp’s tough-but-conflicted Bobby Kennedy to Dylan Baker’s rational Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamara and Costner’s noble O’Donnell. No matter its few instances of playing fast and loose with the particulars of history, Thirteen Days proves a compelling study of the way in which political strategizing, back-channel negotiation, and staunch courage (along with a bit of luck) helped the world narrowly avoid Armageddon.

Availability: Thirteen Days is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from iTunes or VUDU.

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