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.