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Costner, Cuba and Castro in 4 Days

The 'Thirteen Days' actor walks Havana's streets--and that fine line of diplomacy.

April 13, 2001|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — Kevin Costner had just spent a dozen hours with Fidel Castro--dinner and a late-night movie at the Palace of the Revolution, then an intense afternoon round table with the aging Cuban leader and his top historians and intellectuals. The talking point: Costner's "Thirteen Days" and the Cuban missile crisis the film portrays.

It was time for a little fresh air, a dose of Cuban street reality, a spontaneous stroll up Old Havana's Obispo Street through the presumed anonymity of the capital of a U.S.-embargoed nation where none of Costner's films had been officially released until this week.

But within seconds, Costner was mobbed. Women smeared his cheeks with lipstick. Men begged autographs with borrowed pens. Street kids who had seen the pirated films shouted in Spanish: "Hey, Bull Durham!" "It's the baseball guy!" "It's the dancer with those wolves!"

Unflappable, confident yet almost certainly overwhelmed, the 46-year-old star signed untold scraps of paper, posed for a dozen snapshots and basked just a bit in the unexpected warmth lavished upon him behind enemy lines. Then he quickly boarded a bus and speeded away.

"I don't want my visit to be about a gimmick," Costner said as he waded through the street crowd with his small entourage. "I'm not here to represent commerce. I'm here to represent myself.

"I don't make movies just for Americans. I make movies I hope will travel around the world. And this movie deserves to play here."

In fact, save for a brief news conference Wednesday evening before "Thirteen Days" was screened to a selective yet adoring audience at Havana's Charlie Chaplin Theater, Costner studiously avoided photo ops and Havana's small press corps.

Costner and his entourage of co-producers, partners and agents meticulously sought to put a balance on the first-ever visit to Cuba of this decidedly apolitical yet powerful actor. That's a tricky balance in a nation that his most recent film, by historic necessity, casts as one of America's most consistent foes.

As he walked Obispo Street, Costner spoke passionately about the hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles in the U.S. who haven't been home in 40 years. But he did the same about the vitality and acumen of Castro, the durable Communist whose 1959 revolution drove many of those Cubans away.

And, in the process, Costner's group tried to navigate what the native Southern Californian acknowledged is "a really sensitive and highly charged thing."

"I'm not capable of dealing with that," Costner said of the explosive politics built deeply into U.S.-Cuban relations. "I won't engage in it. I'm not a person who suddenly got religion."

Still, Costner was moved almost to tears Wednesday night when a gallery full of aging Cuban cinematographers applauded him for what they called his consistent "courage and talent."

"Everyone should be able to feel what I feel right now," Costner told the group of cash-poor filmmakers. "Those are the kinds of things a son wants a father to say to him."

The mission of this week's four-day visit, which was licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department as a cultural exchange and officially approved by the Cuban government only a week before, was an unusual one for a Hollywood establishment traditionally far more concerned with promotion and profit than fostering political dialogue and bridging ideological divides.

Ostensibly, Costner said the trip, which couldn't possibly earn him a dime, was merely meant to share his critically acclaimed film, which reconstructs through the eyes of the Kennedy White House the two weeks in 1962 when the U.S. and Russia came to the brink of nuclear war. As Beacon Pictures Chairman Armyan Bernstein put it time and again to small audiences this week, "This is a movie about men trying not to fight, and the courage that took."

The film cost more than $70 million to make and grossed just half that in the United States--although it will probably break even worldwide. Yet it's one of those rare mass-audience crossovers that, like "Schindler's List" and "All the President's Men," have become centerpieces of intellectual debate far beyond the theaters.

In the case of "Thirteen Days," co-producers Costner, Bernstein and Peter Almond have stayed with the film months after its opening, personally screening it for key players in the real missile crisis, for President Bush--the first movie he watched in the White House--and finally this week for Castro and Cuba.

Robert S. McNamara, President Kennedy's defense secretary during those 13 days, cried when Almond screened it for him in January. McNamara also attended a Wednesday screening sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow, where the film will open to the Russian public in May.

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