New Angles, But Little New Light, On A Familiar Tragedy

Oct 12, 2013
Originally published on October 4, 2013 12:06 pm

Awkward, incoherent and plodding, Parkland doubles back on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with the aim of presenting that awful event through the eyes of ancillary players whose lives it touched — and, in some cases, wrecked.

That's no trivial mission. I'd stand up for an imaginative rendering of what it felt like to be Lee Harvey Oswald's straight-arrow brother, going forward (or backward) from the day his reckless sibling dragged the family name through the mud.

What was it like to be Abraham Zapruder, torn between sorrow and the desire to make a fast buck out of his footage? And surely there's a great movie waiting to be made out of the sorrow of Jackie Kennedy, laboring under the Camelot mystique and grieving for a serially unfaithful husband. Talk about the melodrama of mixed feelings!

On the fine principle that everyone's a story in waiting, I might even settle for the point of view of the head nurse at the Dallas trauma unit where the mortally wounded Kennedy was taken, especially if she's played by Marcia Gay Harden.

Alas, that great actress has little to do but register stoical unflappability, as Zac Efron mimics her glassy-eyed shock as the young intern who blindly carried on pumping the bloodied presidential chest long after the heart in it stopped beating for good. And as Zapruder, whose 8 mm film of the shooting became a hot property with both security services and the media, Paul Giamatti struggles to come to terms with a stiffly declamatory script.

Said script is the work of novice director Peter Landesman, an investigative journalist; thus far, he gives the impression of a politically well-read but amateur filmmaker working with the top-notch talent that co-producer Tom Hanks brought to the table. Based on Vincent Bugliosi's book Four Days in November, Landesman's film is doggedly attentive to period detail: the beehives and buzz cuts, the chunky typewriters and dial phones, the first lady's bloodstained pinks, all of it seen through a tan haze of earnest authenticity.

In a bumbling stab at thrillerish pacing, swarms of fedora-wearers with guns rush around being barked at by Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), the head of the Secret Service in Dallas and a man of dubious social skills. Somehow, all this commotion adds up to aimless inertia, in part because the movie lacks a point of view — let alone anything fresh to propose about the assassination or its peripheral players.

James Badge Dale is quite good as Oswald's brother, caught between familial love (or at least duty) and impotent rage over having his life ruined at a stroke. And Jacki Weaver offers a welcome burst of wit as Oswald's mother, who believed to the end that her son was part of a U.S. government conspiracy to kill the president, and should have been buried alongside Kennedy at Arlington.

That puts her in the conspiracy-minded company of Oliver Stone's barmy revisionist thriller JFK, from which Landesman is clearly anxious to distance himself nonetheless. The nearest direct assertion of government plotting in Parkland comes when FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) torches, at his boss's behest, the file he had kept on Oswald when they were in touch, but never acted on.

At its modest best the movie is a careful — dramatically speaking, too careful — procedural about the institutional infighting, complacency and incompetence that, aggravated by post hoc FBI cover-ups, nudged the American public further down the path of its blossoming disenchantment with government.

The thing is, most of the cover-ups were long ago uncovered, and their legacy for most of the participants is fairly common knowledge. Parkland invites us into some of their inner torments, but it never really stays to listen.

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