Parkland’s opening credits inform any viewers who’ve never heard of John Fitzgerald Kennedy or his fate in Dealey Plaza that on November 22, 1963, he “made a political trip to Dallas with his wife, Jacqueline.” (“Jacqueline”? Really?) The end credits give us the usual what-happened-for-the-rest-of-their-lives rundown of each character, like informing us of the heartbreaking truth that “Mr. Zapruder never escaped the trauma of his experience.”
Recapping the shooting and its immediate fall-out, writer/director Peter Landesman’s first feature (he’s transitioning out of a journalism career) foregrounds interesting trivia like the difficulty of finding facilities capable of safely processing Abraham Zapruder’s movie. These facts are presumably sourced from detail-oriented attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, a 1,632 page attempt to prove once and for all that Lee Harvey Oswald pulled off a one-man job. Parkland purposefully has no point-of-view on What Really Happened, conspiratorial or otherwise; its main goal is make an over-examined event fresh by focusing on the finer procedural points of the aftermath. While it’s indeed kind of interesting that e.g. no one could initially figure out whether the Dallas Police Department, the Secret Service or the FBI had custody of Zapruder, this is a meager kind of curiosity, telling us nothing about what the assassination meant historically or culturally.
Like Emilio Estevez’s the-day-RFK-got-shot 2006 feature Bobby (itself a debased if harmless version of Robert Altman’s Nashville), Parkland hopscotches between several different characters: Ron Livingston’s FBI agent James Hosty, Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton, barking in his slit-eyed sleep), hospital intern Jim Carrico (Zac Efron, whose anachronistic stubble for an early ’60s professional indicates he’s giving a serious performance), etc. The immediate aftermath of JFK’s shooting is people shouting “Oh my god! They killed him! They killed him!” and viewers will be hard-pressed not to mentally complete the sentence with “Kenny! Those bastards!” The most regrettable performance, per his sad overacting of the last decade-ish, is Paul Giamatti’s Abraham Zapruder; few actors have slid so precipitously so fast from welcome presence to unbearable ham.
James Newton Howard’s pro forma score has lots of somber swelling strings and mournful trumpets. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is a regular Paul Greengrass collaborator, presumably brought on-board for his demonstrated skill at you-are-there recreations in United 93 and The Hurt Locker; here, when the camera bobs, weaves and jerkily zooms through wooden window blinds in the FBI’s Dallas office, it’s like a very special episode of The Office.
Suggesting JFK’s death was the day America Lost Its Innocence is a tired, historically simplistic trope, and any alternate history musings on the path he might have taken in Vietnam et al. are far from the film’s mind; politics simply aren’t present. If there’s any real point, it might be that Texas was a terrible place in 1963. “What a shitty place to die,” Secret Service agent Ken O’Donnell (Mark Duplass) snaps, and the movie bears him out. “The Dallas police is here to execute the laws of the state of Texas,” screams petty county coroner, Dr. Earl Rose (Rory Cochrane), asserting his right to conduct an autopsy and insensitively refusing to allow Jackie and the grieving Secret Service to get the president’s body back to Washington, D.C. Texas has of late made the news for primarily negative reasons: sub-literate governor Rick Perry’s ongoing attempts to outlaw abortion through slippery slope laws, the state’s continuing claim to having the most citizens without health insurance in the nation and so on. If Parkland wants to suggest nothing much has changed to alter the validity of O’Donnell’s assessment, fair enough, but it’s hard not to suspect the real reason for the film’s existence is the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the shooting and the attendant potential cashing-in.
Director: Peter Landesman
Writer: Peter Landesman
Starring: Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton, Ron Livingston, Paul Giamatti, Marcia Gay Harden
Release Date: Oct. 4, 2013