Venice Film Review: ‘Parkland’

Parkland Movie JFK Assassination

This JFK assassination retelling makes "Bobby" look like a masterpiece by comparison.

A painful retelling of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President Kennedy in which the two least important players seem to be JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, “Parkland” dramatizes the immediate impact of that tragedy on the lives of civilians, professionals and others tangentially involved. Comparisons with “Bobby” can’t be helped, since it took a similar approach to the equally shocking death of Robert F. Kennedy, though that film seems like a masterpiece compared with this inadvertently tacky restaging of events. Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, this Oct. 4 release will swiftly be forgotten in the face of more tasteful mementos.

If you’ve ever wanted to know the expression on Abraham Zapruder’s face when his Super 8 camera captured history’s most famous snuff film, or to see the footage reflected in his eyeglasses right after it has been developed, “Parkland” is your movie. Writer-director Peter Landesman offers a reverse-shot on history, depicting the little people pulled into the maelstrom of confusion that surrounded Kennedy’s killing. But mostly, it feels like witnessing someone play a cruel jack-in-the-box trick on dozens of innocent bystanders, watching the belief in humanity fade from one face after another, as when Jackie (Kat Steffens) learns that her husband is dead, or Oswald’s brother Robert (James Badge Dale) hears the news on the radio.

Based on the first 700 or so pages of Vincent Bugliosi’s “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” a solid piece of reportage by the author (and prosecuting attorney) behind “Helter Skelter,” “Parkland” would have been considerably easier to stomach in documentary form. Instead, we get a bizarre mix of Oscar winners and softball actors, as jittery handheld cameras find Marcia Gay Harden working alongside “High School Musical” heartthrob Zac Efron in the ER where doctors tried to save the president’s life. (Fun fact: For the sake of dignity, supervising physician Charles James Carrico evidently ordered that they leave Kennedy’s boxer shorts on while trying to resuscitate him.)

“This was not supposed to happen,” offers Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), the sort of banal dialogue that begs the question of whether anyone could muster a less dramatic retelling of events. Granted, Landesman feels an obligation to history, but there’s something ponderously obvious about the way so many of these scenes are played: Paul Giamatti is sweaty and panting breathlessly as Zapruder; Ron Livingston looks shell-shocked and blank as FBI agent James P. Hosty, who failed to investigate Oswald; Jackie Earle Haley has nothing to work with as the priest who delivers Kennedy’s last rites.

The only characters that rise above waxy re-creation in the whole affair are the Oswalds: Dale and Jacki Weaver, who plays Lee’s venom-spewing mother, Marguerite — a real piece of work. Behind horn-rimmed glasses and a biting Southern accent, Weaver delivers a camp performance totally out of synch with the rest of the ensemble. While Marguerite negotiates for magazine interviews and makes demands of the authorities (“He was an agent for the United States government. He should be buried at Arlington Cemetery with President Kennedy”), Robert grapples with the reality of what his brother has done. Instead of spreading the attention so thin among so many characters, Landesman might have found more success focusing on how this one patriot grapples with the ultimate act of treason in the family.

Named after the Dallas hospital where Kennedy was treated, “Parkland” spans four days in a very tight bubble. Apart from Walter Cronkite’s famous sign-off following JFK’s funeral, there’s little sense of how anyone outside this microcosm of characters reacted to events, the exception being Jack Ruby, whose shooting of Oswald also conforms to the movie’s curious style of rendering key events as obliquely as possible.

It’s as if Landesman wants to break from the now-cliche footage Americans already associate with this tragedy, attempting to introduce fresh images in their place. But no one really needs the sight of a blood-spattered Jackie cupping a handful of JFK’s skull and brain matter, while the irony feels forced when asking the same Parkland staff who had lost Kennedy to treat Oswald or cross-cutting between their funerals. The pic badly miscalculates such mock-poetic heavy-handedness as the classy approach, making it worse by slathering it all in a score that alternates between patriotic horns and cheesy suspense music.

Venice Film Review: 'Parkland'

Reviewed at Dick Clark screening room, Santa Monica, Calif., Aug. 27, 2013. (In Venice Film Festival — competing; Toronto Film Festival — Gala Presentations.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 94 MIN.

Production

An Exclusive Releasing release and presentation in association with the American Film Co. and Millennium Entertainment of a Playtone/Exclusive Media production. Produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Bill Paxton, Nigel Sinclair, Matt Jackson. Executive producers, Steven Shareshian, Joe Ricketts, Ginger Sledge, Guy East, Brian Falk, Tobin Armbrust. Co-producers, Kirk Saduski, Jillian Longnecker.

Crew

Directed, written by Peter Landesman, based on the book “Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy” by Vincent Bugliosi. Camera (Deluxe color), Barry Ackroyd; editors, Leo Trombetta, Marck Czyzewski; music, James Newton Howard; music supervisor, Deva Anderson; production designer, Bruce Curtis; art director, Rodney Becker; costume designer, Kari Perkins; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), John Pritchett; supervising sound editor, Dave McMoyler; re-recording mixers, Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti, Greg Townsend; visual effects supervisor, Scott Gordon; visual effects executive producer, Pete Gordon; visual effects, Reel FX; stunt coordinator, Jeff Schwan; associate producer, Jeni Jones; assistant director, Vincent Palmo Jr.; casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham.

With

James Badge Dale, Zac Efron, Jackie Earle Haley, Colin Hanks, David Harbour, Marcia Gay Harden, Ron Livingston, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, Tom Welling, Paul Giamatti, Kat Steffens.

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  1. Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas is not only the place where President John F. Kennedy died, but also where his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and where Oswald’s own assassin, Jack Ruby, all died.

    Was it a conspiracy that all these people died in the same place, or was it Parkland?

    Parkland has come under intense fire from government health care regulators, at one point lost its Medicare status, and are on 7 straight years of federal probation for serious patient safety care lapses and billing fraud. Many patients who come to Parkland die for no reason at all.

    You can read about the back story about Parkland on the website, “The Parkland Orgy of Death.”

  2. Paul Sarna says:

    Always amazed how conspiracy theorists get their facts from only conspiracy-oriented material.
    -NONE of the Parkland doctors that treated JFK or were in any position to do so, examined the Presidents head wound. In 1988 (on the PBS program, NOVA) the Kennedy family gave permission to four Parkland doctors to examine the autopsy photos and x-rays. In it, Dr. Jenkins said (paraphrasing the best I can)., “How could we examine the head wound? The President is laying dead with the widow standing over us. I think it would have been a bit sacrilegious under the circumstances”. In 1967, Dr. Perry granted his first interview to WKRLD’s Eddie Barker, and readily admitted that there was no time to examine the head would. With regard to the throat wound, he said he obviously did “…not try to ascertain trajectory…we were not concerned with how this happened or why. If a patent airway could not be secured and the bleeding could not be controlled, it made very little difference to us.” Both these interviews are on Youtube (no, not those deceitfully edited 3-second conspiracy clips).
    I also am amused how the conspiracy theorists think a bullet was “planted” on Connally’s stretcher. As if the plotters would know BEFOREHAND that a bullet fired at 2100 feet per second would barely penetrated an UNINTENDED victim, creating a wound that would give plausibility to have another bullet “replace it”…good grief!!!
    Now we have this person talking about Dr. Shaw saying there a bullet embedded in Connally’s thigh? Dr. Shaw, a thoracic surgeon, did not touch that area…calling the wound “trivial”…this was the surgeon that saved Connally’s life from the wound that perforated his chest. He did not treat the leg wound at all. But let’s play out the conspiracy theory. Is this person suggesting that John and Nellie Connally THEMSELVES and all the surgeons, nurses and attending physicians LIED and were part of the coverup regarding the wound reflecting a bullet that barely penetrated?
    Of course they want to bring up “the mob-hitman”, Jack Ruby. Ruby was at a Western Union counter, having a Western Union moneygram wired, time stamped 4 MINUTES before Oswald was shot. (with the original receipt in the possession of Western Union). Would a hitman be THAT casual for a very limited opportunity? ….Do you know how in the movies, people that perform “hits” have getaway drivers? Do you know who was waiting in Jack Ruby’s car?…HIS DOG! And does anyone think, for (by far) THE MOST important hit in mob history, their hitman would use a SINGLE shot to the BELLY???…

  3. burcimmerian@yahoo.com says:

    Dr. James Carrico, played in this film by Zac Efron ,testified to the Warren Commission that Kennedy’s head wound was 5-7cm in the right occiptalparietal part of the skull-that is the right rear of his head was missing. In the film they have the big hole in the front of his head! This is a lie that goes against all eyewitness reports of JFKs head wound. Now why on earth would the film makers make a mistake of that magnitude? The film does not the the famous press conference with Parkland Doctors, Perry and Clark stating that JFK was shot in the front of his throat and had a massive head wound in the rear of his skull. The film does not have the famous press conference with Dr. Shaw stating the there was a bullet still in Gov. Connally’s left thigh-the same bullet supposedly found on a stretcher that became the famous “magic bullet” that hit JFK in the back exited his throat then went on to hit Connally in the back breaking a rib exiting his chest then passing through his wrist shattering his wrist bone then implanting into his left thigh and ending up in near pristine condition. Now why on earth who they omit those press conferences in the film?

    • Joe Williams says:

      The movie also omits the documented presence of Jack Ruby among the people thronging the hallways of the hospital. And incredibly, it doesn’t even mention the discovery of the pristine Magic Bullet under the mattress of an unrelated hospital stretcher, without a trace of blood on it. But it does find time to vilify Dr. Earl Rose, the medical examiner who rightly insisted that the law required an autopsy to be performed in Texas. And it makes a hero out of Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, who didn’t move a muscle to prevent the shooting but drew his gun to whisk the body back to D.C., where the cover-up kicked into high gear at Bethesda Naval Hospital. If you’d like to know how deep this went, look up the sad story of Lt. Col. William Pitzer, who documented the Bethesda autopsy and was murdered in his office to keep him from squealing. Shame on everyone associated with this film for letting these criminals off the hook. . .

  4. Joe Williams says:

    Peter, as a fellow critic, I appreciate your honest, well-written review. So I must ask: Have you actually read Bugliosi’s “Reclaiming History”? And have you read much else on the subject? I’ve read more than 100 books about the death of Pres. Kennedy (and written one of my own), and Bugliosi’s is one of the worst, the very opposite of “a solid piece of reportage.” He can’t even admit that Jack Ruby was a mobster! Bugliosi knew almost nothing about the JFK assassination when he signed his big book contract, and he delegated most of the “reportage” to two poorly credited co-writers, Fred Haines and Dale Myers. Bugliosi, who did almost no original reporting and rarely visited Dallas, then packaged the ghostwriters’ very selective reporting as a prosecutorial brief, over-emphasizing Oswald’s circumstantial/tangential connection to the crime and dismissing the solid evidence that points to others–particularly Bugliosi’s personal friend David Atlee Phillips, a name that is very familiar to serious JFK researchers. Bugliosi derides researchers and first-hand witnesses who believe in a conspiracy as “loons,” “wackos” and “zanies,” He even applies those insults to some of the Parkland doctors; so the several emergency-room personnel who reported that there was a large exit hole in the back of Pres. Kennedy’s head–indicating a shot from the front and thus a conspiracy–were left out of the character list of the “Parkland” film. As far as I could tell, there was no character based on Dr. Robert McClellan, Dr. Charles Crenshaw, nurse Audrey Bell, etc. The number of doctors, nurses and techs at Parkland and Bethesda who swore there was an exit hole in the back of JFK’s head is more than 40! Even JFK’s mortician, Tom Robinson, said there was a fist-sized hole in the back that had t be patched with plaster for the funeral. These may seem like insular “buff” issues, but the majority of Americans rightly believe that there was a conspiracy in the murder of their president, and we are still living with the consequences.–Joe Williams, St. Louis, MO

  5. Darby says:

    Parkland was shot at Austin State Hospital (mental hospital)…..Hollywood go find somewhere else to shoot your movies….mental patients don’t need that crap around them while they’re trying to get better….from someone who was there…..

  6. Pete says:

    The hospital behind the movie, Parkland Memorial Hospital, has had it’s own skeletons, especially of late, with problems in patient care and fraud. The secret service may have taken Kennedy to the wrong hospital. See more on the Parkland Orgy of Death website.

  7. What remains of the real tragedy in the murder of President John F. Kennedy is the assumption of guilt. Lee Harvey Oswald was never adjudicated in a court of law but trial in the court of public opinion; yet, here, in this film review the critic (like far too many so-called “historians”) refer to Oswald solely as the president’s assassin.

    That said, PARKLAND seems quaint in attempting, at least, to handle other points-of-view. The reviewer taking exception as to how this has been accomplish may be cause for debate. What is unsettled goes way beyond this motion picture.

    Oliver Stone’s “JFK” raised the dust that settled upon the powerful people who hated Kennedy, evidence of multiple conspiracies, multiple gunmen firing on the president, the FBI bungling the investigation (and failing to hold onto crucial evidence pointed away from Oswald), members of the Warren Commission who disavowed, but ultimately signed off on, the report handed down as the basis for our “history” regarding President Kennedy’s removal from office…and the media command and control of the American people’s acceptance of “the truth” without all the facts and evidence.

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