You probably already know (and should know) that, in October 1962, JFK and his Cabinet became alarmed about Soviet missiles on Cuba that could hit a large part of the U.S., killing thousands with a single missile. (Incidentally, the CIA had informed him about this 2 months before the movie starts, a puzzling fact which the movie understandably omits for dramatic purposes). Their discussions, strategies and actions are the subject of this movie, taken in large part from transcripts of meetings. This makes for gripping and largely unsentimental filmmaking. There is an unfortunate tendency in some "patriotic" movies to have cheap plays made at the viewer's heartstrings, which would have been pretty easy to do. A page could have been taken from the recent CBS live teleplay of Fail-Safe, and adorable children crying in front of the TV could have been added. It's true that the final scene of the movie is a cheap ploy (Costner's character, an aide to JFK, crying in relief, and his little son asking "What's wrong with Daddy?", which unintentionally recalls Richard Dreyfuss with the mashed potatoes in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind).
Eccentric New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell has complained that the movie has too much shouting and "big" dramatic moments, which I didn't feel was really the case. For the most part, any big outbursts seem a natural byproduct of the stress undergone by the characters. He also complained that the generals were portrayed a big too much like the "agressive" general in some 50s movie (or like the Rod Steiger character in Mars Attacks!). However, it seems pretty realistic when you remember that one of the generals in question is Gen. Curtis LeMay, who, as George Wallace's vice-presidential running mate in 1968, announced that "I think there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons." He then noted that while nuclear war would be "horrible," there wasn't much difference between being killed by one or a "rusty knife" in Vietnam. Thus, the generals' willingness to use nukes if necessary in the movie seems perfectly realistic.
Much has been made of the impressive performances by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp as JFK and Robert Kennedy; the praise is certainly deserved, as Greenwood invests his president with actual diginity, a refreshing change of pace from most recent political movies, where no politicians except the naive have any diginity. Equally much has been made of Costner's over-done role, where his importance is puffed up (you may notice that, though he may get a lot of screen time, he never says anything in the strategy sessions), and his equally overdone, though understandable accent. Much more might be made of the fact that most of the cast consists of TV veterans, like Culp (who also played Robert Kennedy in the 1996 HBO movie Norma Jean & Marilyn), or the impressive Michael Fairman as U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson; it's a surprisingly good cast.
Finally, much might be made out of the fact that director Roger Donaldson has finally made a decent, intelligent movie. I know most of what I know about his movies from reading, but I know, because I saw it in school, that his last movie was the deadly dull mess Dante's Peak, a disastrous disaster movie. I also know that his movie before that, Species, was a derivative, quasi-porn thriller. And that his career has also encompassed such gems as the Alec Baldwin remake of The Getaway and the Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail. But I also know that, occasionally, he's rumored to have made good, entertaining movies like his other Costner vehicle, No Way Out. It's a real shame, then, that one of his best movies is such a colossal financial failure (an investment of $80 million which clawed its way to $35 million). So if you want to see a decent movie that lacks originality but is gripping nonetheless, check out Donaldson's newest, and probably best, movie
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