03 December 2008

One-Scene Performances: Thirteen Days

In college, I read an article in Film Comment listing some of the great “one-scene performances.” You all know the type: an actor who appears in only one sequence, but has an enormous affect on the film and the viewer. You walk out of the theater, turn to your friend, and say, “Hey, remember that scene with that one guy? He was great!”

I’ve decided to start my own on-going post series about some of my personal favorite one-scene wonders. I’ll begin with one that probably most people haven’t thought of, but it almost immediately leaped to my mind when I first thought about doing this blog series:

Len Cariou as Dean Acheson in Thirteen Days
I saw Thirteen Days twice in theaters, mainly because the very first Lord of the Rings trailer was later attached to it. But I did like the film enough—a tight thriller in the vein of Seven Days in May abd Fail Safe—to not mind seeing it twice.

In a movie filled with fine performances from a cast of mostly top-line character actors, the one that really grabs me, as well as most people who had have seen it, is Len Cariou’s short appearance as Dean Acheson during a briefing. Acheson was Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of State, and was the man who convinced Truman to intervene in Korea… so you know how this fellow might view a situation like the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK calls him in for some old-school advice about dealing with the USSR.

Cariou gives a performance that is riveting in how alarmist and purposely over-stated it is. He plays Acheson as the perfect fear-monger, and gives the dead-serious equivalent of George C. Scott’s “I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed” speech from Dr. Strangelove:
Gentlemen, for the last fifteen years, I have fought here at this table, alongside your predecessors in the struggle against the Soviet. Now I do not wish to seem melodramatic, but I do wish to impress upon you a lesson I learned with bitter tears—and great sacrifice. The Soviet understands only one language, action; respects only one word, force. I concur with general Taylor: I recommend air-strikes followed by invasion, perhaps proceeded by an ultimatum to dismantle the missiles, if that is militarily viable….

Your first step, sir, will be to demand that the Soviet withdraw the missiles within twelve to twenty-four hours. They will refuse. When they do, you will order the strikes, followed by the invasion. They will resist and be overrun. They will retaliate against another target somewhere else in the world, most likely Berlin. We will honor our treaty commitments and resist them there, defeating them per our plans.
No more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks.

JFK does point out to Acheson that “those plans” call for the use of nuclear missiles. At which point, Cariou simply leans back in his chair and crosses his arm with a look that says, “So?”

‘Cause, you know, modest and acceptable civilian casualties.

The tone Cariou delivers in this short moment is brilliant: Acheson says he doesn’t wish to be melodramatic, and then hits the melodrama so hard you’d think the Russians were standing outside the door to the White House briefing room, holding hand-held nuclear missiles and doing Boris Badanov impersonations. Acheson talks as if his word is a Law of Nature, and the president dare not go against it.

Which, of course, he does. He did. We’re talking about real people here.

Think how horribly things might have gone if we had listened to this guy. Cariou makes this clear with his acting: Acheson is wrong, but damn is he one scary scary guy, and plenty of people felt that fear at the time to almost fly off the handle and end up with no more than twenty million people killed, tops.

Depending on the breaks.