By Jon Gallagher
Parkland (Exclusive Releasing, 2013) – Director: Peter Landesman. Writers: Peter Landesman, Vincent Bugliosi (book). Cast: Marcia Gay Harden, Zac Efron, Matt Bahr, Mallory Moye, Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Ron Livingston, & Jacki Weaver. Color, 93 minutes.
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy comes another movie in the seemingly endless parade of movies that recreates that historical event. We’ve seen it from documentaries to fantasies (The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald) to conspiracy theories (JFK). What more could another film do to further our knowledge or appreciation of what transpired half a century ago?
This movie promised to give us a different view. Instead of concentrating on the assassination itself or on who shot Kennedy, this movie was to focus on Parkland Hospital, the unsuspecting emergency room where Kennedy was taken moments after the shooting. It made the movie intriguing enough that the weekend it opened, I went in search of it (it was in limited release).
I found the movie about 45 minutes from home, but when I got there on a Sunday afternoon, I found it had already been pulled from the theater. Three weeks later, it was already available on DVD.
The movie begins with Kennedy’s arrival in Dallas as the opening credits roll with actual footage from the event. By the time they’re over, Abraham Zapruder is already picking his spot to record history with his Bell and Howell camera. Within seven minutes of the movie’s start, Kennedy has been shot.
True to his word, the director focuses on the resulting chaos at Parkland Hospital. Shot in cinema verite (handheld cameras), the movie shows the frantic arrival of the motorcade, the unprepared staff (who could be prepared for something like this?), and the complete pandemonium caused with Secret Service, FBI, hospital staff, and a President who is quickly losing his battle for life.
Effron is Dr. Jim Carrico, the resident in charge of the ER this day and his valiant efforts despite his exhaustion and his self doubts. Harden plays an ER nurse, a take-charge type who keeps a level head throughout. Both are wonderful in their roles.
Meanwhile, the secret service is trying to take possession of the Zapruder film from the man who shot it. Zapruder (Giamatti) is a reluctant recorder of history with his state of the art camera. He only wanted to take a movie of the President, not a murder. Thornton plays Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels, who is trying to obtain the footage. Thornton gives the movie’s best performance as an intense agent under pressure to solve the crime.
The first 45 minutes of the film are excellent. They capture the pandemonium perfectly with the handheld camera angles and the flawless acting of the entire ensemble (including extras). Most of the action is at the hospital including a standoff between the locals and the federal agents about who is going to take the president’s body.
Maintaining the intensity of the first half of the movie, however, is too much of a challenge. The final 45 minutes seems to not only lose direction of where it’s trying to go, but follow several different paths at the same time. They didn’t know if they wanted to stick with the Zapruder storyline, follow along with Lee Oswald’s brother Robert and the rest of his family, follow the slain president’s body back to Air Force One (if he wasn’t dead before he went in the casket, he would have been after they managed to get it on board!), or stay with the hospital and explore the staff’s feelings as they try to save the life of the man, Oswald, who was responsible for the one they lost just a few days earlier.
There are some other remarkable treatments in the movie. In every other Kennedy movie, we see the Zapruder film at least once. In this movie, we see it, but we see it reflected in the eyeglasses of someone watching it or we see it some other way other than directly. We are also not led to believe that there was or was not a second shooter on the infamous grassy knoll. The film concentrates only on what is known for fact, not someone’s speculations.
Oswald’s mother is played as a conniving, controlling, lunatic who sees dollar signs almost the moment her son is arrested. Weaver handles the role beautifully. We’re also shown how much trouble they had finding somewhere that would accept Oswald’s body for burial and how newsmen covering the event had to act as pallbearers since no one else would. All are interesting, but stray from the focus, or at least what we were led to believe the focus would be.
Zapruder’s character waffles back and forth between a sympathetic one who really doesn’t want to be where he is, to a greedy opportunist and back again to sympathetic. It was more than just a little confusing how the director thought we were supposed to view him. Maybe the intent was to let us see all sides of him, but it failed because there wasn’t enough done to develop the final incarnation of his personality.
Watching this movie was like talking to someone who goes off on tangents and never quite gets to the point.
I gave it a C-, and only because of the intensity of the first 45 minutes, which was nothing short of great. Unfortunately, when the wheels fell off, they rolled quite a ways away, and the movie just never could get back on track. It’s lucky that it didn’t pull the first 45 minutes down with it.