On October 14, 1962, United States intelligence flights provided evidence that missile sites were being built in Cuba. Why was Russia placing nuclear weapons on this Caribbean island? Were these offensive weapons meant to redress the balance of terror, since U.S missiles were already pointed at the Russians from Europe? For thirteen days a tense world watched as the United States and Russia maneuvered their way out of one of the most critical threats to world peace of the postwar era.

At the heart of this drama is the U.S. President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), who is guided by two advisors — brother and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp) and longtime friend and aide Kenneth O'Donnell (Kevin Costner). JFK, a World War II veteran, is experienced enough to know that the Soviets will only respond to toughness in this tense situation. Yet he is centered and compassionate enough to know the risks of pushing too hard.

The screenplay written by David Self is based on O'Donnell's memoirs and it paints a grim portrait of the power struggle between the Kennedys and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who definitely want to go to war against Russia. They demand a surprise air attack that would wipe out Castro forever. Robert Kennedy refuses to accept this strategy, which would, of course, have been a Pearl Harbor in reverse. He turns out to be the real hero of the day with his shrewd handling of the messages from Khrushchev.

The political, psychological, and social tensions conveyed by Thirteen Days raise questions about war, peace, nationalism, and militarism. Roger Donaldson, the director, has put together a very timely drama. The chilling words of a 1962 column by I. F. Stone unfold what we are talking about:

"How would historians of humankind, if a fragment survived, have regarded the events of October? Would they have thought us justified in blowing most of mankind to smithereens rather than negotiate, or appeal to the UN, or even to leave in Cuba the medium-range missiles which were no different after all from those we had long aimed at Russia from Turkey and England? When a whole people is in a state of mind where it is ready to risk extinction — its own and everybody else's — as a means of having its own way in an international dispute, the readiness for murder has become a way of life and a real menace."