To those of us of a certain age the date of November 22, 1963 is burned into our consciousness the way December 7, 1941 was with our parents. So watching “Parkland,” Peter Landesman’s dramatic recounting of that day in Dallas as experienced by many of its minor players, is a painful yet eye-opening experience.
This new account of the assassination of President Kennedy and its aftermath entertains no conspiracy theories. Nor does it offer up any new evidence about the key moments of that dark weekend just before Thanksgiving.
Made by the award-winning journalist — it’s his first film —and based on a book by Vincent Bugliosi plus Landesman’s own research and interviews, “Parkland” emerges as a gritty, fly-on-the-wall glimpse of several lives forever changed by the events of that tragic day and the next three which saw the murder of JKF’s alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Both dying men were rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. If not for a last-moment intervention, they might have occupied the same trauma room.
The film is impressively made, filled with the kinds of details most history movies would ignore: The near fight with a Dallas medical examiner by federal authorities to get the president’s body out of Parkland or the enormous difficulties getting that coffin aboard Air Force One since its ramps and aisles aren’t designed for coffins.
The snapshots of several people you may or not not have heard of are arresting: Dr. Charles “Jim” Carrico (Zac Efron), the on-duty resident when JFK arrives at Parkland; Nurse Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden), the trauma room nurse; Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who took the famous 26-second Super 8 footage of the assassination; and the assassin’s perplexed brother Robert (James Badge Dale) and loony mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver).
An air of crisis dominates the film. Everyone acts as if in a war zone. As far as the Secret Service is concerned, it may be just that: War could indeed break out — but with whom? Until they can get the new president back to D.C., every gun is ready.
The perhaps unintended consequence of this film is a stunning portrait in collective guilt and blame. The Parkland medical staff stares at one another in shocked disbelief: Did they just lose the president of the United States? The head of the Dallas Secret Service, Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), feels full responsibility for the loss even though he could’ve done nothing to prevent it.
Zapruder wishes he never filmed the murder and knows it will mark him forever. Yet he also knows he must sell this piece of history, a burden he wishes he could shun.
The worst situation though occurs at the FBI’s Dallas office. Agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) has actually been tracking Oswald for months. He never met the man because “he’s never around,” but did speak with his wife, Marina. It gets worse.
Oswald had come into the Dallas office earlier in the month and left a threatening note for Hosty. He never took it seriously because such threats were almost daily affairs. But his boss, Gordon Shanklin (David Harbour), blows his top.
Shanklin, a much more political animal, instantly realizes the implications of these contacts. He also sees the desperate need for someone to blame, namely Hosty. So when Oswald is killed he orders Hosty to destroy his file on Oswald. After all, there will be no trial so why keep any evidence?
Those four days in Dallas were ugly, dark days and “Parkland” all too well chronicles the torment everyone felt. However, the film also seems skimpy at times.
It’s either too short — for all the personalities and situations it wishes to portray — or casts too wide a net. The torment of Zapruder or Sorrels fits very imperfectly with the sad saga of the Oswalds or the many implications behind the destruction of an FBI file on one of the greatest crimes in history.
Released a month and a half prior to the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, “Parkland” is a reminder of one of the worst moments in American history and how inadequate many people felt as they struggled to cope with the tragedy.
In the end, Hosty was transferred out of Dallas, his career in tatters. And Shanklin, Special Agent in Charge of the Dallas office, who ordered the destruction of Oswald’s file? The FBI has named its building in Dallas after him.
Opens: October 4, 2013 (Exclusive Media)
Production companies: The American Film Company, Playtone Productions
Cast: James Badge Dale, Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Colin Hanks, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, Ron Livingston, David Harbour, Jeremy Strong, Jackie Earle Haley, Tom Welling.
Director-screenwriter: Peter Landesman
Based on the book by: Vincent Bugliosi
Producers: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Bill Paxton, Nigel Sinclair, Matt Jackson
Executive producers: Steven Shareshian, Joe Ricketts, Ginger Sledge, Guy East, Brian Falk, Tobin Armbrust
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editors: Leo Trombetta, Mark Czyzewski
PG-13 rating, 93 minutes