– Summary –
Director : Peter Landesman
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Paul Giamatti, James Badge Dale, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacke Earl Haley, Colin Hanks, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Jackie Weaver, Tom Welling, Ron Livingston, David Harbour, Bitsie Tulloch, Kat Steffens, Mark Duplass.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: After the assassination of President Kennedy, in Dallas Texas, Parkland details the events following this tragedy, in and around the Parkland Hospital, as well as Abraham Zapruder’s famous film footage, and the family of shooter Lee Harvey Oswald.
What we think : Considering it’s more a straight-up docu-drama, Parkland is surprisingly tense. While the outcomes are known, and history is already written, Parkland allows some terrific actors to really bring to life some of the unsung – or largely unseen – events going on behind-the-scenes immediately following Kennedy’s assassination. Paul Giamatti, in particular, stands out as the greatly affected Abraham Zapruder, while Jacki Weaver, James Badge Dale, Tom Welling and Ron Livingston provide solid supporting roles. Even bit-parts to Zac Efron and Colin Hanks are ego-free. From the top shelf.
Conspiracy nuts will be disappointed.
In all of the 20th Century, no event so galvanised the media, public opinion and became a cultural touchstone than the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Dallas, November 22, 1963, is – and I’ll steal an old Roosevelt quote here – a date which will live in infamy, when American innocence was shattered at the single crack of an assassins bullet. Ever since that fateful day, more ink, internet space and dinner table conversation has been spent on dissecting and opinion-ating the JFK assassination than any other topic; at least until the events of September 11th, 2001, in any case. Parkland, yet another dramatisation of the events surrounding the JFK killing, sees a highly regarded cast delivering solid performances in a series of vignettes that play out over the course of the three or four days following Kennedy’s death. While Oliver Stone’s histrionic JFK remains perhaps the most iconic cinematic presentations of the events of that time, Parkland is no less a solid, well made film detailing a period of American history that – probably for the next 50 years as much as the last- will not soon be forgotten.
It’s November 22nd, 1963, and President John F Kennedy has touched down in Dallas, Texas, for a whistle-stop tour of the city. Driving his motorcade through the city, Kennedy is shot at, leaving him a bloody corpse on the back seat of his Presidential limousine. The Secret Service, led by Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) have the President taken to the nearby Parkland Hospital, where doctors Charles Carrico (Zac Efron) and Malcolm Perry (Colin Hanks) work on the dying man to try and save his life. Head nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) attempts to keep order in the crowded operating room, with Secret Service and other Federal personnel attending the scene. Meanwhile, back at the scene, local clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) has inadvertently captured the President’s death on camera, a roll of film which will become among the most famous in all recorded history. The shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) is taken into custody by the FBI and his brother, Robert (James Badge Dale) exhorts him with guilt at ruining the family name. Oswald’s mother, Marguerite (Jackie Weaver) believes Lee is in reality an American spy, doing Government sanctioned work, causing a rift between her and her eldest son. At the same time, a local FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) learns that Lee Oswald visited their offices only several weeks prior to the shooting, information which leads his superior, Gordon Shanklin (David Harbour) to give him an ultimatum. Meanwhile, the Secret Service, led by Special Agent Roy Kellerman (Tom Welling), take the body of Kennedy back to Air Force One, in order to return him to Washington, alongside incoming President (and former Vice President) Lyndon Johnson.
As somebody who was born well after the events of Kennedy’s assassination, the controversy and mythology surrounding that day still feel somewhat unfathomable, as if it were some horror-fantasy concocted to provide Government conspiratorial types momentum and focus. The Kennedy Assassination, to this day one of the most profound events in modern US history other than 9/11, and certainly one of the first of that country’s largely media-driven news events, remains an iconic touchstone for many – especially those who were alive to see it, or hear about it – and the fascination with not only Kennedy the man, by the myth which has grown up around the events of Dallas remain as full blooded now as they did 50 years ago. A film like Parkland, which delves into the lives and emotions of those on the periphery that day, ran the risk of feeling a little too overzealous in its portrayal of those tragic events, given the recent anniversary, yet with a meticulous eye director Peter Landesman has crafted a film that is as far removed from the other major JFK flick, JFK, as it’s possible to get.
Parkland is all business. It’s also largely free of viscera and gore when it comes to depicting the actual event itself. Instead, Landesman (who wrote the screenplay) focuses on the people around President Kennedy, from Secret Service agents, the FBI, the public and the medical staff at Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy (and later Lee Harvey Oswald, and even later still Oswald’s eventual killer, Jack Ruby) was taken immediately after the shooting. There’s a sense of restrained urgency around the film, a semi-documentary, semi-dramatic interpretation of events as written in Vincent Bugliosi’s book, Reclaiming History: The Assassination Of President John F Kennedy. The film is less a straightforward narrative than it is a series of interwoven vignettes featuring the real people in the background of the story; Abraham Zapruder’s famous film footage, in particular, is highlighted here, and the exact method it was developed, then copied, and then handed to LIFE Magazine, is dramatically (and movingly) essayed by Paul Giamatti as the guy with the camera.
Parkland’s methodical manner works to help the film remain as tense as it is: indeed, Parkland never preaches, trying to remain as truthful to said events as it can. This will no doubt infuriate the conspiracy nutters, most of whom will come out and denounce this effort as a pack of lies or some-such, but Parkland’s less effusive style and restrained manner provides a more layered, nuanced effort that is, in all, rather considered. We are there when the doctors cannot save Kennedy on the operating table, we’re there when the Secret Service, acting more out of loyalty than within the law, takes Kennedy’s body from the hospital to Air Force One, and we’re right there when Robert Oswald learns of his brother’s appalling deed, and how that will affect the family name forever. Rather than focus on a single story, Landesman crafts an interwoven series of stories, all overlaid with iconic visuals and some portentous statements from the major players, some of which comes off as a little overly patriotic, yet works with the film’s overall tone.
The cast are – bar none – superb. From Giamatti as Zapruder, down to Zac Efron as one of the Parkland Hospital doctors, nobody puts a foot wrong here. Giamatti is the standout, as Zapruder. His guilt, his horror, his echoing sadness, all plays out with Giamatti’s telling, powerful portrayal of a man torn between doing the right thing for his country, and doing the right thing by President Kennedy. It’s an Oscar-calibre performance, in my opinion, and is one of the strongest arcs the film presents. James Badge Dale is equally as searing as Robert Oswald, who must endure the inevitable persecution and hatred (as ill placed as it is) for his brother’s actions, knowing that the name Oswald will forever be tarnished by the assassination. His reaction to this knowledge, as he confront Lee, is a moving moment indeed. Jackie Weaver, who pops up as the Oswald matriarch, is spitefully abrasive and perfectly cast, delivering the crazy like nobody’s business. I wasn’t expecting her in this film, but her presence is welcome.
Bill Bob Thornton is solid as a Secret Service agent dealing with the aftermath, while Ron Livingston is underwritten (and yet still very good) as an FBI Agent who discovers that Oswald has been in contact with his office prior to the assassination. Tom Welling, best known as Smallville’s Clark Kent, is near unrecognisable as a Secret Service agent who decides to put Kennedy’s body on Air Force One, but his square-jawed approach is commendable. Zac Efron surprises as one of Parkland’s doctors, while Colin Hanks offers excellent support. Marcia Gay Harden doesn’t get a lot to do, but does whatever with ease. Jackie Earl Haley (Watchmen, Nightmare On Elm Street) appears in a small role as a priest attending the stricken President, and in five minutes delivers more gravitas than some actors manage throughout their entire careers.
While the actors are all superb in their roles, large and small, the other aspect of the film which deserves commendation is the production design. The film looks, feels and damn near smells of the period, the early 60’s cut-and-press style of dress, the hair, the technology (or lack thereof); Parkland evokes the age with such skill you really feel like you’re standing there with everyone, breathing in the dust and musk of one of America’s golden eras. The film has an intimacy that’s remarkable; a lot of the footage is close-up, in-your-face of the actors, almost refusing the look away as this whole sorry sage begins to play out. Lensed by Paul Greengrass’s current DP dejour, Barry Aykroyd, Parkland’s warm, brown-toned imagery is both evocative and gorgeous. The way the film is lit, the way it’s edited, and accompanied by James Newton Howard’s suitably moving score, all work harmoniously to draw us further and further into the stories.
Parkland will appeal mainly to American audiences, since it’s their historical milestone being told (again). International audiences would be well served checking this one out, however, as a handy addendum to all the Kennedy-themed documentaries getting about in light of the recent 50th anniversary of his assassination. It’s a powerful piece of dramatic recreation, with a scattering of terrific actors (and a bunch of surprisingly good performances from lesser lights) serving to add gravitas and weight to an already wrought scenario. As somebody who appreciates the historical context, Parkland is powerful stuff.