As the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination draws near, it seems the tragic events surrounding that day are just as appealing to Hollywood now as ever. Kennedy's life and death have been examined from basically every perspective, growing in legend and becoming like fine ambrosia to conspiracy theorists everywhere. Journalist and first-time director Peter Landesman avoids the paranoid path established by Oliver Stone's JFK with the ensemble drama Parkland, and while it's not always coherent or emotionally resonant as it should be, the film presents a sobering and honest look at the people affected by Kennedy's death.
The film begins not long after Kennedy's arrival in Dallas on November 22nd 1963, and largely follows the staff of the Parkland Hospital where the President, Lee Harvey Oswald, and even Jack Ruby were all taken for treatment. The doctors, including young surgeon Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) go about their day while the nurses gossip over how pretty the First Couple are together. Local busy-body Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) of the famous "Zapruder film" just wants to capture the motorcade on his new camera, while Secret Service agents Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) and Roy Kellerman (Tom Welling) worry about security risks.
Presented in a grounded, intimate style best described as Greengrass-esque, the film is made up of a series of little moments with an emphasis on the details. This is no more apparent than in the depiction of the assassination, which Landesman is careful not to simply recreate. We've seen footage of it so many times that it's wholly unnecessary, but what little we do see follows the point-by-point description in witness accounts. Instead, Landesman turns his attention to the traumatized people watching the shooting unfold, in particular the nervous Zapruder, whose Super 8 footage would become a crucial piece of evidence.
What unfolds next is a chaotic police procedural as the Secret Service and FBI scramble to figure out what went wrong, while the doctors furiously work to save the President's life. Many of the controversial questions that have surrounded that day crop up, in particular about the role Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) had to play, but Landesman is quick to leave anything vaguely conspiratorial in the dust. However, there's still room to question the handling of the case by the FBI, who had Oswald in their custody just days before the shooting, causing a p.r. nightmare.
For all of the film's realism and faithful recreations, building an emotional connection to any of the characters is a problem Landesman never quite cracks. An ensemble of this size was always going to have issues in that regard even with such a talented cast portraying so many recognizable figures. While we see that most of these people understand the gravity of the situation, especially the doctors and agents with literal blood on their hands, we don’t learn enough to understand why Kennedy was important to them. The only exceptions are the fascinating glimpses into Oswald's family, in particular his brother Robert (James Badge Dale) who must deal with the shame of having a legendary murderer in his family. His grief is only compounded by their mother (Jacki Weaver), a glory hound looking for her 15 minutes of fame. It's through the Oswald’s that Landesman finds the one compelling storyline that can stand on its own, aided by yet another fantastic performance by Dale. Most of the performances are solid otherwise, with Weaver's psychotic "Mommie Dearest" bit the biggest distraction. Landesman still has some growing pains to work through as a director. Some of the edits are sloppy and it gets a little tough to follow what's going on with which character at any given time. Ensembles of this size are notoriously tough even for veteran directors.
Parkland works when focusing on the little things, making us feel like true witnesses to history rather than judging it through the benefit of hindsight. JFK's assassination remains an important historical touchstone in this country, but its significance has long been lost to myth and rampant speculation. While Parkland still doesn't feel completely necessary and fails to offer up much in the way of new information, Landesman deserves credit for demystifying the event so its true impact can be felt.