Oliver Stone’s brilliantly paranoid 1991 film JFK is arguably the most famous – not to mention controversial – film about the assassination of president John F Kennedy. But 50 years on from that fateful day in November 1963, along comes writer and director Peter Landesman’s Parkland, a timely and rather more reverent examination of the shooting and its aftermath.
An admirable ensemble gathers to re-enact the chaos that took place in the wake of those fateful gunshots in Dallas, Texas, and Parkland’s unusual in that it deals with the lesser-known people connected to the event rather than those at the top of the chain of command.
A wan Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, an ordinary businessman whose filming of the event makes he and his 8mm footage the focus of a ghoulish media scrum. In a story that flips between three disparate strands, a moist-eyed Zack Efron plays a young doctor who attempts to revive the stricken president. Mark Duplass plays a Secret Service agent who broods over his perceived failure to stop the murder from taking place, while Billy Bob Thornton plays a G-man on the trail of the killer.
Evoking the feel of a docudrama, with Paul Greengrass-style handheld camera work and contemporary news footage spliced in at key moments, Landesman provides a brisk and detailed account of who did what and when. As an evocation of the 1960s, Parkland‘s quite effective, even if it feels more like an expensive made-for-TV film rather than a piece of cinema.
All too often, however, Parkland wavers between glumly solemn melodrama and a slightly hysterical, even crass stare at the incident’s gorier details – the extended scenes of blood-spattered surgeons and government operatives weeping over their fallen president are more grimly histrionic than emotional or informative.
Other scenes are simply mishandled, such as the extended reaction shot used to illustrate the assassination itself, which spectacularly fails to capture the horror of the moment. Other sequences are brought low by some clunky lines of dialogue, such as the distracting and borderline comic, “If you know anything about this, then I want to know what you know right now”.
There’s also a scene where a character says, “I’m sorry – there are no pall bearers” in such a thick Texan accent that it sounds more like “I’m sorry – there are no polar bears” which deflates the solemn air somewhat.
In among all this, James Badge Dale’s low-key turn as Robert Oswald – the brother of Lee Harvey Oswald – is all the more affecting. As he watches the events unfold on television, and it dawns on him that he’s directly related to the hated figure at the centre of it all, the sense of betrayal, guilt and outright fear is perfectly, subtly conveyed through his controlled performance.
Even as Jackie Weaver wrestles with a southern accent (and loses) as his formidable mother, Dale remains dignified and magnetic, which makes it quite unfortunate that an entire film couldn’t have been dedicated to this one strand of the story, because it’s here, in among all the frantic phone calls, emergency room quarrels and the dramatic removal of documents from filing cabinets, that the emotional impact missing elsewhere finally lands home. In assassinating the US president, Lee Harvey Oswald effectively ruined the lives of dozens of other people, not least his blameless brother, who’s coldly advised by a drawling cop to leave Texas with his family and never return.
Really sparking into life in some scenes yet sputtering awkwardly in others, Parkland is a more compact, less speculative film than Oliver Stone’s JFK – refusing as it does to address the conspiracy theories surrounding the case – but it also lacks that film’s compulsive, febrile power.
Undeniably made with the best intentions, and quite informative in its exploration of the government’s actions in the wake of a national tragedy – such as the desperate rush to get Zapruder’s eyewitness footage developed – Parkland sadly fails to cohere as an entirely satisfying drama.
Parkland is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd November.
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