By Linc Leifeste | October 4, 2013
Director: Peter Landesman
Writer: Peter Landesman (screenplay)
Starring: Zac Efron, James Badge Dale, Marcia Gay Harden, Tom Welling, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, Paul Giamatti, Colin Hanks, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Sparks, Jimmie Dale Gilmore
When I heard that Zac Efron would be starring in a film about the Kennedy assassination, my first thought was “Oh God. Back and to the left…then run for the exit!” But I’ll admit that I was wrong. And I was also misinformed. Parkland doesn’t star Efron, although he’s one of several prominent actors in this ensemble piece, and it’s not really a film about the JFK assassination in its entirety as much as a film that focuses on the event’s periphery. Based on Vincent Bugliosi’s book, Four Days in November, the film’s brief running time of 93 minutes doesn’t allow for the President’s, nor his shooter’s, backstory. And thankfully there’s not even the faintest hint of Oliver-Stone-conspiracy-theory to be found in the film. Instead, director Peter Landesman has trained his cinematic eye on five characters and the way their lives are impacted in the first few days after the shooting: Parkland Hospital’s Dr. Charles “Jim” Carrico (Zac Efron), Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), assassin’s brother Robert Oswald (James Dale Badge), FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) and Secret Service Dallas bureau chief Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton).
In its early moments the film shows us the carefree nature of Efron’s stunningly attractive, young, inexperienced resident surgeon, flirting with a beautiful young nurse, expecting this beautiful November Dallas day to be like any other. Likewise, we see Robert Oswald putting in another day of work at Acme Brick, oblivious to the heinous act his younger brother is on the verge of carrying out. Dressmaker Abraham Zapruder, a Kennedy fan, is excited about the President’s visit, offering his employees a chance to leave work to watch the motorcade pass by, an event he is planning on filming on his 8 mm Bell & Howell camera. We’re briefly introduced to Thornton’s Sorrels, voicing his confidence that the President’s visit will go smoothly. And we see stock footage of Kennedy’s arrival in Texas and film footage of him being gifted with a cowboy hat to “protect his head from the rain” after speaking at an event, a lighthearted moment at the time but eery to watch in light of later events.
And then, just a few hours later, everything changes, and not just for those in Dallas directly impacted by Oswald’s shots ringing out but for those all across the nation and around the world. The brilliance of Parkland is that it allows the assassination’s impact on a few people to personalize the impact it had on all Americans. As you watch Dr. Carrico overcome the stunned inertia that is brought on by seeing a barely alive President Kennedy rolled into his operating room to spring into ultimately futile action or as you see Robert Oswald’s shocked reaction to finding out that it was his own brother that has killed the President or as you watch Zapruder struggle with the weight of the responsibility of what he has caught on his camera, you are emotionally punched in the gut by the realization that nothing will ever be the same for any of these innocent bystanders to the deranged course-of-history-altering actions of one misguided man.
In telling a story that’s been told countless times before, the ending of which everyone knows ahead of time, it’s in the revealing of evidently historically acurate details where the film finds it’s strongest, most dramatic moments, illustrating just how ill-prepared everyone was for the events of November 22, 1963. From a confrontation with the Dallas County medical examiner, who is insistent that the President’s body cannot leave the hospital until he has performed an autopsy, to the rushed trip transporting the body to Air Force One to fly back to Washington alongside an anxiously awaiting Lyndon Baines Johnson, to the quick and extraordinary measures that must be taken in order to get the coffin onto the plane and in a dignified space for the trip, the story of JFK’s security detail trying to figure out what they should do with Kennedy’s body is a gripping affair, probably little known to most Americans.
All of the actors give solid performances in service of a script that at time veers into the declamatory, with particularly welcome appearances by Jackie Earle Haley as the priest who gives an already deceased Kennedy last rites and Texas singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore as the country preacher who delivers the eulogy at Oswald’s burial. The film’s weakest point might very well be the constraint of its short running time, which Landesman has said he felt was necessary due to the heavy nature of the material. Even focusing on just five characters, an hour and a half simply doesn’t allow sufficient time to dig in while compellingly carrying the narrative weight necessary to convey the story of such a historic, tragic event. And of course, while the film’s moving focus is on five people, it includes a cast of hundreds and a lot of recognizable faces who tend to get lost in the mix, ultimately leaving the viewer emotionally invested but also slightly overwhelmed and a touch malnourished.