DIR/WRI: Peter Landesman • PRO: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Matt Jackson, Bill Paxton, Nigel Sinclair • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • ED: Markus Czyzewski, DES: Bruce Curtis, Leo Trombetta • MUS: James Newton Howard CAST: Zac Efron, Tom Welling, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti
Parkland appears 50 years after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. It takes its title from the hospital where both JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald were taken for treatment after they were shot. There are some points of interest, but they’re limited.
Writer-director Peter Landesman makes his feature film debut. His script draws on Vincent Bugliosi’s 2007 book Reclaiming History, which documents all aspects of the assassination and runs to over 1,600 pages (that’s 1.5 million words!). The book’s length reflects the array of material that has been published about JFK, ranging from conspiracy theories to eyewitness accounts. Its scope presents quite the challenge to a filmmaker: what can be said that hasn’t been said already? Oliver Stone dazzled audiences in 1991 with his three-hour epic JFK; those expecting a conspiratorial thriller in Parkland shouldn’t hold their breath.
Landesman’s short film plays more like a TV drama, drawing on generic detective and medical dramas. Comedian Ernie Kovacs quipped that 1950s television was a medium because it was neither rare nor well done. Landesman’s treatment unfortunately feels more like the latter. He avoids the conspiracy theories, eschews examining President Kennedy’s politics or his legacy, and focuses instead on the more “human interest” aspects: the medical response at the hospital, Abraham Zapruder’s famous 8 mm recording, the investigations commenced by the FBI and the Secret Service, and the reactions of Oswald’s mother and brother Robert.
Parkland attempts to inject some interest into events that are really sideshows. When the President died in the hospital, what happened next? A coffin was required, the priest administered the last rites, and there was some dispute between the federal and state agents as to whether an autopsy should be carried out in Dallas. How appealing viewers find these aspects will determine how much they enjoy the film. The period detail, sets and costumes are good, the production budget well spent, but the film still feels lacking when it ends.
Its point remains elusive. A dramatic presentation should have some insight into the human condition, people’s emotional involvement in events. The film’s multi-narrative approach makes this difficult. It introduces myriad characters, rather like listing names for photographs in a book. The players often have little to do other than looked horrified or sad. There is no drama. The filmmakers look for it in the wrong places. Finding space in an aircraft for a coffin was hardly the day’s most pressing problem.
Where there is tension, the film misses the mark. It falls into shouty melodrama that lacks conviction. Jackie’s grief is sidelined: she disappears midway during the film. James Badge Dale, playing Robert Oswald, can’t convey his character’s conflict between love for his brother and the damage Oswald’s involvement brings on their family. His unaffected blue eyes fail to register any sign of torment. Celebrated actors contribute little: Billy Bob Thornton, as secret agent Forrest Sorrel, Jackie Weaver, as Oswald’s mother, and top-billed Zac Efron, as Dr Carrico, who treats President Kennedy, don’t make much of an impression in their small parts.
Paul Giamatti, playing Zapruder has fleeting good moments, but Landesman mishandles them. Poor integration of live action and archive footage jars early in the film , when Giamatti appears alone on-screen in what must have been a chaotic scene, 30 yards from the motorcade. Later, Landesman cuts pointlessly from different shots of Zapruder when he’s at home with his wife. The use of unconventional angles and jumpy cutting just serve as a pointless effort to give dull material some edge.
Zapruder’s story, that of the “world’s most famous home video”, might have resonated in an interesting way today, when ordinary people can easily record images of protests and political violence on their phones. The print media, Life magazine, the New York Times and others, hound Zapruder for use of the disturbing images he captured, and he struggles with his responsibility for such powerful pictures.The Kennedy assassination was a major media event, and Walter Cronkite’s and other broadcasters’ recurrent commentary, along with TV news footage, play a prominent role in the film, tying the various elements together. TV news came of age and demonstrated the medium’s capabilities, and the film reflects the shift.
There are worse films than Parkland, but its weak handling and glib dramatic interest make it unappealing as a cinematic attraction. It might make for a passable TV programme.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Parkland is released on 22nd November 2013