Film Review: Parkland

Gripping recreation of "America's darkest moment" admirably sticks to the facts, which are more overwhelmingly dramatic (and seemingly farfetched) than any mere movie script.

Based on Vincent Bugliosi's book, Four Days in November, Parkland is a meticulous recreation of that dark, world-changing time in Dallas in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Debut writer-director Peter Landesman manages to keep a steady controlling hand over the kaleidoscopically chaotic events enough to make for a film that is charged with urgency and suspense, even though we all know by heart most of the heartbreaking and still shocking events recorded here.

Titled after the hospital where JFK's bullet-riddled body was shepherded, this is an ER situation which, happily, had no real precedent in this country and, very sadly, would not be unique in history's annals. Landesman positions the various players—the fraught hospital staff and the President's confounded yet fiercely determined Secret Service men—in claustrophobic, uneasy proximity during the brief, desperate attempt to revive the Commander in Chief. Both parties were rather making it up as they went along and there is real drama in, say, the struggle between gung-ho security and the coroner who suddenly appears, demanding an autopsy before the body is removed.

Although representing due process of Texas law, the man is overridden in the wild dash to get the body on a plane back to D.C., and this, along with the willfully ignored and suppressed evidence of FBI man James Hosty (Ron Livingston) about assassin Lee Harvey Oswald's possible involvement with the U.S. government are the stuff which has fed generations of conspiracy theorists. Landesman scrupulously steers clear of adding fuel to the fire, but does give a picture of the more unfamiliar turbulence within Oswald's family, which includes an overwhelmed yet upright brother, Robert (James Badge Dale, very strong), and an overbearing, celebrity-crazed mother (Jackie Weaver, giving a hammy performance that is a definite mistake, as it momentarily lowers the film into gaudy melodrama).

Briskly edited and excitingly photographed with admirable attention to myriad detail, Parkland features a battalion of good actors mostly working with laudable conviction and intensity. Sweaty Paul Giamatti is perfectly cast as Abraham Zapruder, the schlubby local merchant whose home-movie camera instantly thrust him onto the pages of history with its notorious capture of the assassination. Marcia Gay Harden is by now one of the screen's best character actresses and, as usual, is unquestionably convincing as the nurse who tries to control the hubbub in the hospital and also, touchingly, provides the crucifix laid upon JFK’s coffin. Livingston expresses Hosty's conflict with tasteful economy which becomes very moving by the end. Zac Efron is rather bizarrely cast in the weighty role of head surgeon Jim Carrico; his prettiness (as well as Colin Hanks' as another doctor) nearly threatens to turn their scenes into a “Dr. Kildare” episode.

Billy Bob Thornton rather overdoes it playing Texas lawman Forrest Sorrels like some kind of hayseed Grim Reaper in a fedora. Kat Steffens appears as Jackie Kennedy, at first given lots of shots from the back and facial obscuring, but eventually she is totally revealed in her suffering. I rather wish filmmakers wouldn't always pick bland, conventionally pretty brunettes to play Jackie, as she  possessed a pinch of jolie-laide in her severe jawline and impossibly wide-set eyes which lent a strong distinction to her beauty. Also, although the filmmakers include many of the famous lines people spoke at the time (including Walter Cronkite's immortal, emotional CBS reporting), they missed the best one of all. That was when Lady Bird Johnson (unseen here) suggested to Jackie that she change her blood-spattered Chanel suit and she replied, "No, I want them to see what they have done to Jack."