Film Review: Parkland

Anatomy of an Assassination

Oct 7, 2013 at 11:48 am

Parkland | C+

Perhaps one of the most scrutinized, debated, analyzed — and memorialized — 72-hour periods in American history occurred on Nov. 23-25, 1963, after America’s world was turned upside down by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s been widely declared that the murder killed not just the president but the nation’s sense of innocence.

There is little about this tragedy that hasn’t been dissected, yet first-time director Tom Landesman walks us through the events again — in excruciating, gut-wrenching detail; but with a detached ambiguity that leaves the whole spectacle as cold and sterile as an operating table.

At first, it seems we’ve found an intriguing entranceway into the epic tragedy by way of the medical staff inside Dallas’ Parkland Hospital, where a weary but dedicated team goes about their daily business, unaware they are about to wade hip-deep into a macabre and muddied corner of history.

Colin Hanks and Zac Efron play the laid-back, youthful but professional surgical residents on duty; Marcia Gay Harden leads the nursing staff with a mixture of motherly grace and steely resolve. There is a tense, real-life immediacy to scenes set in the operating theater, yet the film continually keeps shifting focus and expanding its view to include other eyewitnesses and participants caught in the maelstrom.

Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, a cheerful, grandfatherly dressmaker who morphs into the avatar of the county’s collective anguish and horror, once his Super 8 camera graphically captures the fatal headshot that brutally ended “Camelot.”

There are assorted secret service agents and other G-men, tormented by their sudden failure, but grimly determined to keep it together and protect the new president, all while preserving the fleeting dignity of their fallen boss. Familiar faces like Billy Bob Thornton, Ron Livingston and Mark Duplass play these various agents with pretty much the same unwavering mask of solemn mourning.

Things become more unhinged when the focus shifts to the Oswald family, with Lee’s guilt-stricken and shell-shocked brother (James Badge Dale) and their nutso, self-aggrandizing mother Marguerite (played with manic abandon by Jacki Weaver).

Oswald’s mother was one of the first conspiracy theorists, fiercely asserting her son was just a pawn of the C.I.A. Her claims in the movie are treated as lunatic ravings, and other lingering doubts and mysteries are avoided. That’s hardly shocking, as the script was adapted from a book by the Warren Commission’s biggest fan Vincent Bugliosi. It’s dubious that any movie could tackle the myriad controversies of JFK’s death effectively, but in totally sidestepping them we’re left with a gloomy procession of events, with nothing more than sorrow and regret binding them — all free of insight. Parkland is a well-made movie that strenuously avoids having any sort of point.

Parkland is in theaters now and is rated PG-with a running time of 93 minutes. Watch the trailer here.