The following interview + article was published in The Guardian's 'Review' Supplement on 17 March 2001 with a close up picture of Kevin taking up the entire cover page (taken at the Press Junket held at The Dorchester Hotel). The piece itself was headed by a very large picture of Kevin + Christine arriving at the US Embassy for the special screening.
"Keeper of the flame"
Kevin Costner is singlehandedly changing the way cinema audiences regard the Kennedy presidency - first with the conspiracy movie JFK, now with Thirteen Days, an in-depth account of the Cuban missile crisis. Is he obsessed? Jonathan Freedland finds out
This is not your usual movie-premiere crowd. Crunched into the American embassy in London's Grosvenor Square, trading insider talk over white wine and stylish canapes, are neither Tara Palmer-Tomkinson nor Caggy off Big Brother, but the rarely glimpsed top brass of transatlantic government. Why, there's the head of the civil service, Sir Richard Wilson. And isn't that Tony Blair's media-shy chief of staff, Jonathan Powell? And look - Francis Richards, the director of GCHQ, inches away from Peter Ricketts, the intelligence coordinator at the Cabinet Office, both rubbing shoulders with Rear Admiral Stanley Bryant, deputy commander of US naval forces in Europe.
What movie could possibly have drawn this crowd out? Surely only an MoD information film would warrant the formal attendance of both the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, and the vice chief of the defence staff?
Not so. For this was the London premiere of Thirteen Days, a 145-minute account of 1962's Cuban missile crisis - when John F Kennedy's White House battled Nikita Khrushchev's Kremlin in a game of nuclear chess - from the moment the US spotted Soviet warheads in Cuba, close enough to nuke Washington, until the backroom deal that allowed the world to breathe again. The film, meticulously compiled from memoirs, histories and transcripts garnered from the White House secret taping system (the same one that would eventually trip up Richard Nixon over Watergate), reconstructs at length and in detail the deliberations of the diplomats, advisers and military chiefs who navigated America through the cold war's gravest stand-off. It is a movie where the lead protagonists are white men in suits, all of them government officials. Is it any wonder the Grosvenor Square crowd loved it?
Not that politicos have been short of on-screen glamorisation recently. No doubt Wilson, Powell and Co had the home videos whirring last night, taping the West Wing, the White House soap that turns harried and overworked aides into TV heroes. Their counterparts in Washington have long been treated to the likes of Air Force One, Independence Day and The American President - blockbuster films in which the prez is the all-purpose action hero and number-one good guy.
But Thirteen Days is different. For one thing, not all the Americans in the movie are goodies. On the contrary, while the Soviet adversary in Moscow is never seen - his presence is felt only in the communiques and secret messages decoded by Kennedy and his team - the president's on-screen opponents are the hardmen of his own military. It is air force General Curtis LeMay the audience wants to boo and hiss when he appears, he and the rest of the uniformed brass who pound the table in their determination to make war. The conflict of Thirteen Days is not Kennedy v Khrushchev, but the dove-ish Kennedy brothers against the hawks of the American military machine.
Second, the film-makers have resisted the obvious temptation to make an action thriller in favour of a cerebral one. There are a few whizz-bang shots of US planes in flight but none of the pyrotechnics of other president-as-hero movies. Instead, most of the action takes place in the close, tense rooms of Washington, DC: the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the Pentagon, back to the Oval Office. The result is a cinematic claustrophobia that makes for good suspense, but a decidedly old-fashioned film. It's like 12 Angry Men: white guys debating in their shirtsleeves.
Third, this movie is pretty accurate. Scholars have noted that Robert Kennedy, shown here as sharing JFK's desire for a negotiated solution, was by the end as much of a hawk as everyone else around the crisis table. Others have questioned whether Kevin Costner's character, Kenny O'Donnell, a trusted retainer and political adviser of the Kennedys, would really have had such a prominent role since his official job was as the president's appointments secretary. But these are niggles. Mostly the film stays scrupulously faithful to the record.
Last, and crucially given Costner's involvement, Thirteen Days offers not a single conspiracy theory. This is significant since Hollywood's chief presidential historian until now has been Oliver Stone. It was his JFK, starring Costner as the truth-seeking New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison, that injected conspiracy theories into the American mainstream. His Nixon played the same game, rearing a new generation of US cinemagoers on the belief that their country is run by a shadow government of oil men who meet secretly in Texas. (Come to think of it, a glance at the new Bush cabinet suggests Stone may not have been so off the money.) Now Thirteen Days has appeared to offer American audiences a solid slab of history served straight.
The result has been a clutch of top-drawer plaudits. The op-ed pages of America's serious papers have been full of praise, with veterans of the Kennedy White House first in the chorus. Historians have welcomed it as a useful and accessible teaching aid; the film-makers say they hope it will soon gain a place on the college curriculum. If the military-diplomatic elite could turn movies into hits, Thirteen Days would be the runaway smash of the year. (As it is, the movie has enjoyed only a modest box office, grossing a moderate $35m so far in the US, less than half of the $75m it cost to make.)
So how come? How did Hollywood come to make a film of which Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves says, "Compared with most of the junk being made these days, Thirteen Days is practically Thucydides"?
The answer may lie with the film's star. Kevin Costner lobbied hard to get this film made, served as its co-producer and is now acting as its chief promoter. In a conversation with him this week, it became clear that Thirteen Days is the film it is partly because Costner is the man he is.
Central to it is his attachment to the Kennedys. "I still chase stories," he says in a voice softer and more twangily American than expected. "And it's not surprising that lives as full as their's would be full of stories." But, Costner adds swiftly, it was not the "tabloid" tales of Kennedy lore he wanted to tell.
"That family's suffered a lot of pain from being talked about that way," he says. "It never interested me to talk about their personal lives... All of us have feet of clay, all of us would have things that, under a harsh light, we wouldn't want revealed."
But Costner denies he's trying to restore the Camelot magic, so tarnished by the revelations of JFK's womanising and mafia links. (There are, for example, none of the usual JFK-tossing-a-football shots, no drooling depictions of the beautiful Jackie either.) Nor is Costner a personal friend of the family, doing volunteer PR work. "I knew Bobby Jnr, Michael and Joseph. We're not pen pals, but I've met them and they know that I've tried to take a professional approach to their family."
Still, surely the Kennedy clan cannot be too grateful for Costner's JFK, which turned the trade in conspiracy theory into a full blown industry? "We had the footage, the Zapruder film, so obviously it wasn't a comfortable film for them. But I think that last speech [setting out the great loss America suffered through Kennedy's assassination in 1963], I think they took pride in that."
So Costner denies a Kennedy fixation, despite playing two men who, in different ways, dedicate their lives to keeping the Kennedy flame. But he does admit to a related motive, one that would explain his reluctance to expose the sleazier underside of the period: a desire to show America's leaders as heroic.
"I hope people who see the film will see a decision-making process that was not about being re-elected or taking the easy decision. The easy decision was not to negotiate - the easy one was to go in and fight. And at the time people were giving [Kennedy] a hard time for not fighting. Yet now, 40 years later, we see that as a highlight. Now we live in a time of instant gratification, you know, 'What will appeal to this demographic or that.' But then they decided to do what was true and what was right."
Cinematically the result is an uphill climb. For the movie's Kennedy, played expertly by the Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood, is not a conventional hero. He does not growl "deploy" as American President Michael Douglas did when he bombed Libya. Nor does he get to fry aliens like Bill Pullman in Independence Day. Instead he is shown weighing conflicting opinions, clutching his aching back as he grapples with indecision. His greatest bravery comes in restraint. This the heroics of hesitancy.
To Costner this is the greatest courage of all. For, it turns out, the actor believes in that least fashionable of causes: total nuclear disarmament.
"We still live with this unbelievable threat over our heads of nuclear war," he says, his voice rising in both certainty and volume. "I mean, are we stupid? Do we think that the nuclear threat has gone, that the nuclear destruction of the planet is not imminent? It's a delusion to think it's gone away."
He hopes the movie will not just be a history lesson, but a wake-up call for the present. "I hope that people realise the threat is still there - unless we're so numb that we're under some illusion that we're safer now than we were then." He cites CNN founder Ted Turner's $250m grant toward global efforts at total disarmament. Does Costner support that? "Is anybody against it?"
It's an unusual view, especially in America where the consensus holds that the existence of nuclear arsenals on both sides has kept the peace. "We've been able to stand up to dictators because we can swing for the world. We haven't always known when to swing - we had dumb interests in Vietnam - but I just wish that, when we swing, it isn't with a nuclear right arm."
To him it's all very obvious. "I'd like to go to Egypt, but I don't feel it's safe. I'd like to go to Israel or Beirut, or to Yugoslavia the way it used to be. Or Moscow, or the South Pacific. But it's not a safe world, it's a dangerous world." (Later, on hearing of this exchange, Thirteen Days co-producer Peter Almond remarks drily: "We're the only movie in the world with a foreign policy.")
If Kevin Costner, peacenik, is a surprise, the rest of his world view should not be. For there is something in that soft voice, warm tan and freshly gelled hair that suggests a wide-eyed, almost Pollyanna-ish outlook on life. He is, after all, the star of Field of Dreams - the man who told the folk at the US embassy of his pride and heart-felt love of his country.
The Costner philosophy is influenced by California - he speaks about being an "evolved human being" - but it is quintessentially all-American. It is nostalgic for a simpler era, the days of baseball greats and noble presidents. But it is also, even naively, full of faith and optimism.
So the actor refuses to accept that the Kennedy era might have been the golden age of political leadership. He does not believe what some might infer from his new film: that those were the days of giants and today we are ruled by pygmies.
"I think there are good men and women in all decades. You know, we've grown cynical. And look at what we do to all our heroes: Churchill, FDR, Kennedy, they all had affairs. But heroic things happen every day. I believe people who go into politics want to do the right thing. And then they hit a big wall of re-election and the pettiness of politics. In the end, politics gets in the way of the business of people."
But if the heroic era is not behind us, what about the new man in Kennedy's chair? If George W faced a Cuban missile crisis today, would he act like JFK, weighing all the advice before coming to the wisest, safest decision?
"I'd like to believe that he would. We've had 43 presidents from all across the board. But a good president, a good leader, is not always the smartest man in the room. John [he refers to Kennedy by his first name] combined being a philosopher and a great leader. And George [Bush gets the first-name treatment too] he's leaning heavily on his ability to judge the character of the people in his cabinet. He's going to be more of a delegator."
But surely the lesson of Thirteen Days is that delegating is not good enough. Ultimately the president must decide alone. "I'm not about to go tearing [Bush] down. I'm just hoping for the best."
This Pollyanna-ism extends to his personal politics. Costner won't say how he voted in November, but he does admit to giving money to the campaigns of both Bush and Al Gore. Hedging his bets? "I wanted to see the debates and I believe in the quality of the argument." Plus, he says, he didn't want either candidate thinking he was in the bag. "I don't vote party line. I vote for the best person." It all sounds rather purist. "I am a purist."
If Costner is very California and very all-American, he is also very Hollywood. The movie town has always had this attitude to politics: a yearning for purity. You can see it today in West Wing, with Martin Sheen playing Hollywood's dream president - a liberal, ethical good man. But it was there 62 years ago when Jimmy Stewart starred in Frank Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the story of an outsider who takes on the corruption of Capitol Hill. Perhaps that's the best description of Costner's world-view: Capra-esque. He says he does not see himself as an actor, but as "a citizen of the world".
Still, that need not be an obstacle. Plenty of Hollywood dreamers have swapped LA for DC, from Ronald Reagan to Sonny Bono. If politics is showbusiness for ugly people, might Kevin Costner ever turn the maxim on his head - and trade movies for elected office?
"No. I want to move faster than that would allow. And the pettiness that has slipped into politics, the 24-hour-a-day process of being re-elected, doesn't appeal to me. And the gridlock, that if something's a good idea for you then it must be a bad idea for the other side."
So, we shouldn't hold our breath for President Costner just yet. After all, he didn't even grab his chance at playing a president, ceding the Kennedy role in Thirteen Days to Greenwood. Why? "I don't think I'd have been as good as Bruce was. He was a better JFK than I would have been." He's right - but isn't that hard to admit? "Did you see me stutter?" he smiles. "If you don't understand your limitations you won't achieve much in your life." Besides, Costner as JFK would have been a distraction: audiences would have been waiting for an impersonation, not a performance.
Given all this - the apparent awareness of his own limitations, the apple pie idealism - why is it that Costner has eluded the affection ladled out to the father of Capra-ism, James Stewart, and his modern descendant, Tom Hanks? Why is it that the name Costner prompts as many sniggers as bouquets? Why does he seem to attract so much schadenfreude? Witness the clear pleasure that greeted the bellyflop that was Waterworld or the wave of ignominy currently descending on his latest US release, 3000 Miles to Graceland, a caper movie in which Costner teams with Kurt Russell as a pair of criminal Elvis impersonators. One critic wrote that "3000 Miles is one of those movies that makes you want to throw up your hands in despair, disgust or maybe both". Another declared: "The picture feels longer than Presley's career and as irrelevant as he was by the end."
The key to this lack of kindness may lie somewhere in the black-and-white sequences of In Bed with Madonna, the singer's fly-on-the-wall documentary about her world tour of 1990. One scene shows Costner, fresh from his multiple-Oscar winning triumph with Dances with Wolves, popping backstage after catching her show. He tells the star he thought it was "neat" - at which Madonna sticks a finger down her throat in a mock barf.
Madonna tends to have a good instinct for popular feeling. Did she know that most of her audience would feel the same way as she did about Costner, that there is something about him just a little uncool?
Costner is not taking the bait. He refuses to ape the director of the new Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan vehicle and diss his own film. "It's kind of a B-movie. And I helped a young director get it made and I'm very proud of that. I'm proud of all the movies I've made. They're not sequels, they're not franchises. And the reason I pick my films carefully is that I don't want to spit on my life. That would be doing a movie for a paycheck, because I can. I like to think of myself as more than that.
"When I make a film I'm away from home for two to three months. So I want my kids to look at my films one day and say 'I love his movies, I love his choices - because he loved them.' " The wording, the delivery, the sentiment and nostalgia - it's another Capra moment.