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Thirteen Days (2000)

By Anthony Faust · May 17, 2016

Screenplay by: David Self

Kevin Costner stars as Kenny O'Donnell, Special Assistant to President Kennedy in this taut, harrowing dramatization of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Screenwriter David Self manages to intertwine the 5 major rules within the first 10 pages of his screenplay. Let's break them down.


The introduction of the main character gives us our first impression of him or her. We define that character in our minds. We slap a label on him or her as we attempt to understand who that character is. A good screenwriter will reveal a character's idiosyncrasies in small stages, like breadcrumbs spread throughout the screenplay, providing just enough to nourish the reader and hold his or her interest. 




A simple CAMERA, snapping away furiously in the hands of a giggling MARK O'DONNELL, 4.  He's straddling and in the face of his dad, KENNY O'DONNELL, 30's, tough, Boston-Irish, with a prodigious case of morning hair.  Kenny awakens, red-eyed.


                                HELEN (O.S.)

                Mark, get off your father!


Kenny sits up to the morning bedlam of the O'Donnell house.


KIDS screech, doors bang all over.  Kenny pushes Mark over, rolls out of bed, snatches up the corners of the blanket and hoists Mark over his shoulder in a screaming, kicking bundle.




Kenny, with Mark in the bundle on his shoulder, meets his wife HELEN going the other way in the hall with LITTLE HELEN, 1, in her arms.



                Hi, hon.


They kiss in passing.  Daughter KATHY, 12, races by in angry pursuit of her twin, KEVIN, 12.



                Don't forget, Mrs. Higgins wants to talk

                to you this afternoon about Kevin.  You

                need to do something about this.



                Kids are supposed to get detention.


Kenny dumps the bundle with Mark in a big pile of dirty laundry.

There is nothing groundbreaking in showing a character enjoying a tender moment with his son and a routine morning talk with his wife, as this scene demonstrates, but Self establishes a connection here. We can relate to O'Donnell and, considering the intense moments we will feel in the script's subsequent pages, this scene offers a refreshing contrast to the mayhem that will follow.

Also, by introducing the main character's children in the first few pages, Self communicates to the reader that that main character has something at stake. He has something valuable to lose. So the reader will understand, as the action rises and climaxes, what will inform the actions, and the decisions, of the main character as he navigates the complex maze of political maneuvering, posturing, and statesmanship in the subsequent scenes.

Self does something else effective here. This story is about the Cuban Missile Crisis, an important event in the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The main player, and the most powerful figure, in that crisis on the American side was President Kennedy. However, Self chooses to make the reader follow the crisis through the eyes of Kennedy's Special Assistant, Kenny O'Donnell. Putting us in the intimate circle of Kennedy would have made it hard for the ordinary citizen to relate. By following O'Donnell, we get an outsider's view of one of the most significant events in the Cold War.


In the next scene, Self continues the domestic theme, reinforcing the notion that O'Donnell is a devoted family man, while managing to crystallize the screenplay's genre.




A kitchen out of the late 1950's.  Kenny drinks coffee, ties a tie, rifles through a briefcase at the kitchen table.  The horde of kids, ages 2-14, breakfast on an array of period food.  Kenny grills the kids while he goes over papers.



                Secretary of Defense…



                Dean Rusk!



                Wrong, and you get to wax my car.


KENNY JR. smirk at Kevin.


                                KENNY JR.

                Rusk is State, moron.  Robert McNamara.



                Got time for pancakes?



                Nope.  Attorney General?


A PHONE RINGS as the kids cry out en masse.




                Too easy!  Bobby, Bobby Kennedy!


Kenny glances up at the wall.  There are two phones, side by side.  One RED, one BLACK.  It's the black one ringing. Helen answers.  Kenny goes back to his papers.



                All right, wise guys, Assistant

                Secretary of State for Latin America…


                                                        SMASH CUT TO:

This is no ordinary breakfast table conversation. The unusual questions about positions in government, and the two phones, one red and one black, tells us one thing. This is a screenplay about politics, and our main character, Kenny O'Donnell, plays an important role. The briefcase, the tie, and the cup of coffee are all signs of a white collar job. The two phones suggests secrecy, and that our main character will wield a measure of influence over other characters in this story.


After establishing the genre of the screenplay, politics, Self sets up a masterful sequence that shows our main character moving through the halls of power, following his daily routine. It's a sequence that is punctuated by the introduction of the President of the United States and brilliantly foreshadows the locations (e.g. the West Wing, the President's Bedroom) where Kenny and the President will hold their meetings while they grapple with the dramatic situation of the script.




Kenny, in business suit and tie, trots up the steps, and a MARINE GUARD snaps the door open for him.




Kenny, briefcase in hand, weaves his way through the empty, ornate hallways of the West Wing.  Past magnificent doorways, early American furniture, paintings.  He finally reaches a doorway, goes through into:




A long, narrow affair, window at the back looking out into the Rose Garden.  Kenny dumps his briefcase on the desk, shucks off his coat, removes a folder from his briefcase, turns and heads back out…




And into the warren of offices and halls that is the working White House.  He takes a right, passes the doors to the Oval Office right next to his office, goes down a long, straight hall, into…




The formal main building, the executive mansion.  He passes the busts of Presidents past, turns left into an elevator.  The doors close.




The doors open.  Kenny strides out onto a DIFFERENT FLOOR, the third.  He heads down the long, posh hall of the family quarters.  Fine furnishings, art.  The living White House.


He approaches the double doors at the end of the hall guarded by a cluster of SECRET SERVICE AGENTS.  An agent opens one of the doors.



                Morning, Floyd.


                                SECRET SERVICE AGENT

                Good morning, Mr. O'Donnell.




Kenny enters the elegant bedroom.  The figure alone at a side table by the window, drinks coffee, breakfast still spread out before him, Washington Post obscuring his face.



                Top o' the morning, Mr. President.


The figure lowers the paper.


It is PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY.  He's wearing boxers and a tank top.  Unshaven.  Bed-head.


Kenny O'Donnell, former ward-pol and long-time Kennedy man, is his Chief of Staff…


                                THE PRESIDENT

                Morning, Kenny.  You see this goddamn

                Capehart stuff?


The President rattles the paper.  Kenny collapses in the chair opposite the President, sprawls, comfortable.



                Bayh's going to lose, but it's good

                groundwork for us for '64.


Kenny steals a piece of buttered toast off the President's plate.  The President spares him a glance.


                                THE PRESIDENT

                I was eating that.



                No you weren't.


                                THE PRESIDENT

                        (scanning the paper)

                I was, you bastard.


Kenny takes a defiant bite.


                                THE PRESIDENT (CONT'D)

                So what've we got today?



                Today, for your information, is Pulaski

                Day.  We're going to Buffalo…



As we get close to the end of the first ten pages, the screenplay's dramatic situation becomes the next, and last, major rule Self addresses. We know the world of story. We understand the genre. We have been introduced to the main character. Now, we want to know what this story will be about. Read how Self brilliantly paints a picture that manages to set up the dramatic situation and illustrate the theme of the screenplay, all in two pages.




Kenny's office is a raging beehive of activity.  Kenny works the phone as ASSISTANTS come and go with files.



                        (to phone, scary calm)

                Listen to me, you worthless piece of

                disloyal shit.  You will pull Daly's man

                on the circuit.  You owe your goddamn

                job to this administration.

                        (beat, listening)

                There is a word you need to learn.  It

                is the only word in politics.  Loyalty. 

                LOYALTY you motherfucking piece of shit!


As Kenny THROWS the phone down at the receiver, and the PRIVATE DOOR to the Oval Office suddenly opens.  Kenny glances up.  President Kennedy stands there in the doorway. Kenny thinks he's reacting to the tirade.


                                KENNY (CONT'D)

                What're you looking at?  This isn't the

                blessed order of St. Mary the Meek.


Kenny stops.


                                KENNY (CONT'D)

                Excuse us.


The Assistants leave, shutting the door after them.  Kenny rises.


                                THE PRESIDENT

                I think you should come in here.


Kenny starts for the door.


                                THE PRESIDENT (CONT'D)

                Still think Cuba isn't important?



                Not as far as the election goes.


The President lets Kenny by into…




WE ENTER from a different angle than we usually enter in movies: through the side door.  The President's ornate desk sits on the right, windows looking out on the Rose Garden behind it.  Kenny's gaze swivels to:


THE OTHER END OF THE ROOM where the Interpreters, their crewcut chief, ARTHUR LUNDAHL, 50's, and Bundy stare at him. They're surrounded by PRESENTATION BOARDS propped up around the fireplace.  The President's rocking chair and sofas.


                                THE PRESIDENT

                You used to look down a bomb sight for a

                living, Ken.  What do you see?


In eerie silence, as all eyes follow him, Kenny makes his way among the presentation boards with the U-2 imagery, stops in front of the picture of the six canvas-covered objects.  It unleashes a wave of memories.



                We hit a Nazi buzz bomb field in '45. 

                        (beat, incredulous)

                It looks like a rocket base…


He puts his hand out to touch the image, then turns and looks to the President, knowing what they must be.



                On Sunday morning, one of our U-2s took

                these pictures.  The Soviets are putting

                medium range ballistic missiles into Cuba. 


Shock.  Silence.  Kenny glances to the other men.



                They appear to be the SS-4: range of a

                thousand miles, three-megaton nuclear




                Jesus Christ in Heaven…


The theme is crystal clear. This screenplay is about men in crisp, tailored suits, from opposite sides of the world, who will fight each other mostly with words, and sometimes, if the situation demands it, with deadly weapons. The fight will be a chess match, played out over the course of two weeks, with each side trying to gain the upper hand with secret messages, private meetings, calculated threats, and military posturing.

In so many screenplays that utilize the Man vs. Man theme, we see men fighting one another, each side trying to destroy the other one. What's unique about Self's screenplay is that it shows men trying to AVOID fighting. And as history teaches us, that's not an easy task.

Thirteen Days also gives us shades of other themes. We see scenes with President Kennedy discussing the fear of nuclear war, a threat that permeates the entire screenplay with vivid descriptions of nuclear bombs exploding. President Kennedy, being a man with the power to order military action, fights his inner demons and struggles to listen to what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the “better angels of our nature”. In these scenes, the Man vs. Himself theme is being explored.

In a later scene, Kennedy shares a story with his inner circle about the First World War, and how the military leaders during that conflict were woefully unprepared for the technological advances that had been made hitherto. In a way, Thirteen Days is about men trying to govern themselves, and the people they represent, in an age many of them were still struggling to understand, thus suggesting a Man vs. Society theme. It was a time when, just a few decades earlier, the idea that a single bomb could kill hundreds of thousands of people in an instant seemed unfathomable.

In conclusion, the screenplay for Thirteen Days does an excellent job of delivering the 5 major rules in its first 10 pages. It is a script rich with metaphors, thought provoking themes, and entertaining moments.