Director: Peter Landesman
Starring: Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, Paul Giamatti, James Badge Dale, Ron Livingston, David Harbour, Tom Welling, Jeremy Strong, Mark Duplass, Gil Bellows, Colin Hanks, Jackie Earle Haley
Running Time: 93 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
In the midst of the media coverage surrounding the half-century anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I caught this news program that talked about how miraculous it was that Abraham Zapruder was able to keep his 8mm camera steady on the President's limo for over 26 seconds when the shots rang out. It was one of those facts I always knew was amazing but never seriously contemplated. How did he do that? And why isn't it a bigger story? Writer/director Peter Landesman's Parkland is all about details just like that. Details that have unfortunately been tossed aside in favor of speculating on a myriad of unproven conspiracy theories for the past few decades. This is finally the movie about everything else. The really important stuff no one focuses on, which only makes it that much more frustrating that critics have so casually dismissed it.
In recounting the surreal and chaotic events that took place in Dallas following the assassination, the biggest worry was that this could become another Bobby, Emilio Estevez's overtstuffed historical ensemble piece that turned RFK's killing into a goofy game of "spot the star," as an impressive cast participated in what merely amounted to a large-scale soap opera. There's none of that here, as a similarly stacked ensemble is comprised mostly of character actors who slide invisibly into their roles in a manner similar to real life people they've been chosen to portray. It's as if Landesman knows this is a topic that's been explored to death on film and TV, but usually in the most obvious and uninteresting ways possible. He responds with a take that's legitimately different, gripping and informative. That the most powerful story and performance rests in the hands of a lesser known actor playing a person few know even existed, speaks volumes.
Based on Vincent Bugliosi's book, "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy," the movie depicts the events of November 22, 1963 from a number of perspectives. The doctors and nurses at Parkland Memorial Hospital who tended to the fatally wounded President. Secret Service chief Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton). JFK's security detail. The FBI. Lee Harvey Oswald's guilt-ridden brother Robert (James Badge Dale). And of course Dallas-based clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who was at Dealey Plaza unwittingly capturing the entire horrific event on film with his home movie camera. With a sweep this broad and the story examined from so many angles, there was a real risk of this being an unfocused mess, but those fears are put to rest with an opening half-hour that generates an almost nauseating level of suspense while visualizing disturbing details we've only heard about the shooting's immediate aftermath. And many we haven't.
Much of the action occurs in the Parkland where Kennedy arrives without a pulse or breathe sounds, but a weak heartbeat. Describing him as barely "alive," upon arrival would be using the loosest possible definition of the word, but first-year surgical resident Dr. Jim Carrico, almost by chance, is handed the unenviable duty of resucitating him. Joining him is head nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) and eventually Dr. Malcolm Perry (Colin Hanks). Carrico's played by Zac Efron, subverting expectations by not only disappearing into the part, but doing surprisingly well in an emotionally gut-wrenching sequence. The look on his face when he realizes who's been brought in and what happened is priceless. I'd say it's the moment of the movie, if not for the five or six other ones that could reasonably compete with it.
Seamlessly incorporating actual news footage within the film, the events of the day are so detailed and chaotic it almost feels as if this is a handheld docudrama unfolding in real time, taking us along for the ride while managing to somehow sidestep tired recreations of famous scenes. The approach even extends to the depictions of JFK (Brett Stimely) and Jackie (Kat Steffens), whose faces are covered through much of the proceedings. Until they're not. Jackie obviously has more to do, but Landesman wisely casts a complete unknown, sparing her any added pressure as she grieves on the sidelines, rarely taking center stage. This is more frightening because it reflects the First Lady's marginalization by the Secret Service as they switch their allegiance to new President, Lyndon Johnson (Sean McGraw), who was, by all accounts--no matter your opinion of him politically-- a class act in the days immediately following the tragedy.
The President's story, and the country's, is told through these seemingly ordinary people in Dallas, at times playing as if it were an post-assassination procedural, illuminating under-reported facts. Like Robert Oswald's quite, ashamed belief in his brother's guilt the very minute he hears the news of his arrest. Torn between Lee's actions and their lunatic mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver) looking to cash in, an Oscar-worthy James Badge Dale does the unthinkable in actually earning sympathy for a family member of Lee Harvey Oswald. His inability to obtain a proper burial for the man who killed the President is understandable, but not as understandable as no one willing to provide one. When Robert comes face-to-face with his emotionless brother, he sees what we do: a monster. Besides baring a shocking physical resemblance to Oswald, actor Jeremy Strong's speech pattern and mannerisms are so frighteningly accurate that it comes as a relief only a single scene is spent with him. Any more would probably be too sickening to take.
Just about the only character as guilt ridden as Oswald's brother is Zapruder, played by an unsurprisingly terrific Paul Giamatti. Burdened with footage he never wanted, we finally get an inside look into how and where that 8 mm film developed and the ensuing negotiation with Life magazine for it's release to the public. While it may be hard to classify anyone as a "hero" under circumstances like this, Zapruder definitely comes closest, and Giamatti navigates the Dallas business owner's battle to rid himself of the footage while still insuring the Kennedys aren't exploited. As it turns out, the right magazine got it, and when it was time to publish the pictures, they did it the right way. And years later, when it was time to let the footage go, they managed to take the high road again. We wouldn't have been so lucky today. One of the most shattering scenes is when we finally get to view Zapruder's famous home movie along with him, reflected through the eyes of the man who filmed it.
Guilt and responsibility is what ties all these characters together. For Secret Service head Sorrels, played by Billy Bob Thornton, it's the realization that the President was lost on his watch. For FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) it's the lost opportunity of having Oswald in his office and leaving threatening notes just weeks before the assassination. It's a nearly unrecognizable Tom Welling as Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, trying to drag Kennedy's corpse out of Parkland against the medical examiner's wishes to perform an immediate autopsy. What's fascinating about the scene is how Kellerman seems like the hero protecting the Kennedy family while the medical examiner comes off as a clueless twit. History would prove who the real twit was. The body should have stayed in Dallas. And how about the Secret Service barely being able to fit the casket on the plane. It would be unbelievable if it wasn't all completely true, making this the only movie about this tragedy that should probably come with an accompanying spoiler warnings.
While recognizing anyone's interest in Parkland goes only as far as their interest in the actual event and I was easy to please, this is a topic that's been poorly handled. The most recent hatchet job being the Killing Kennedy TV movie, which depicted the tragedy as a cross between an unfunny SNL skit and a cheap crime show reenactment. 2011's superb The Kennedys miniseries came closest to doing the tragedy justice, while still serving as only part of a much larger story. Oliver Stone's JFK is undeniably masterful filmmaking, but it's not about the actual assassination so much as our theories about the potential conspiracies surrounding it, which look less believable by the day due to the lack of any concrete evidence. Our desire to keep looking stems mostly from the refusal to associate such a pivotal event with a nobody like Oswald. But conspiracies are boring compared to the actual truth surrounding ordinary people who had to react to an extraordinary event they were unprepared to be a part of. But calling this the best film made yet about the Kennedy assassination isn't completely accurate. So far, it's the only film that's actually been made about it.