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Why ''Thirteen Days'' may struggle at the box office

Historical subjects (and Kevin Costner) haven’t sold many tickets lately, says Bruce Fretts

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Kevin Costner, Thirteen Days
Costner: New Line Cinema

Why ”Thirteen Days” may struggle at the box office

The countdown has begun on ”Thirteen Days.” The Cuban Missile Crisis docudrama was originally set to open nationally on Dec. 22, but New Line recently decided to move it out of the path of Tom Hanks’ ”Cast Away” and other holiday box office tsunamis opening this weekend. The film will now bow in New York and L.A. on Christmas Day, then roll out wide on Jan. 12. The questions facing star Kevin Costner are not unlike the ones with which then- President John F. Kennedy grappled in October 1962: Can he avert disaster, or is he about to detonate a bomb?

I’m afraid the answer to the latter may be yes. Mind you, this has nothing to do with the quality of the movie. Aside from Costner’s initially distracting Bahstin accent as adviser Kenny O’Donnell, this is one of the year’s best films. Tensely directed by Roger Donaldson (who earlier collaborated with Costner on another political thriller, 1987’s ”No Way Out”), ”Thirteen Days” benefits from the brilliantly understated work of Bruce Greenwood (”The Sweet Hereafter”) and Steven Culp (”JAG”) as JFK and RFK, respectively. So why does this flick face a questionable financial future?

Let’s begin with Costner. Audiences weathered his bad accents in ”Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (British) and ”JFK” (New Orleans), but they’ve wearied of his bad movies lately — ”Message in a Bottle,” ”For Love of the Game,” and, lest we forget, ”The Postman.” He’s the only household name in the cast of ”Thirteen Days,” and these days, his name is pretty much Box Office Poison. Then there’s the subject matter. Moviegoers under the age of 40 don’t remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, so in terms of youth appeal, it’s no ”Dude, Where’s My Car?” Unlike a certain Mel Gibson romantic comedy, a two and a half hour think piece about a bunch of worried white guys in suits isn’t exactly ”What Women Want.” Even for Cold War buffs, there’s a built in problem: They know how the story ends.

The inevitable controversy over the film’s accuracy, however, may be what really sinks ”Thirteen Days.” Rumblings have already begun about how O’Donnell’s role has been overstated. He’s portrayed as the Kennedys’ closest confidant, while veep Lyndon Johnson, for one, is nowhere to be seen during the crisis. I don’t know if this is true, and frankly, I don’t give a damn. If I wanted a factual account, I’d read one of the many history books written about the incident. Still, such fact versus fiction quibbling damaged a number of recent docudramas, including last year’s ”The Insider” and ”The Hurricane.”

I certainly hope I’m proven wrong. Perhaps the controversy will help promote the film, as it did with ”JFK.” Potential Oscar nods for Best Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor could sell tickets to some Costner- phobic skeptics. The best prospect for ”Thirteen Days,” though, is that Americans alienated by our just concluded electoral crisis will flock to see an example of genuine presidential leadership, no matter how fictionalized. Hey, it hasn’t hurt ”The West Wing.”