Every generation retells history in its own voice. Parkland, the newest film about the JFK Assassination, bears the distinctive mark of a movie made in a so-called post 9-11 world. It is a film whose interest lies not in intrigue or conspiracy, but in the trauma of historic events. The film’s stars are the bit players in Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963, the doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital, the FBI and secret service agents, and Abraham Zapruder, the businessman who transformed media with his 8 mm film of the moment John F. Kennedy was shot in Dealey Plaza.
The other aspect of Parkland that makes the film of its time is its filmmaking style. Like films such as United 93, first time director Peter Landesman makes use of handheld cameras which shove their way through the crowds that clog the cramped confines of hospital rooms, police headquarters hallways, FBI offices, and West End office suites. Landesman then takes these tightly-cropped scenes to build a mosaic panorama of the day, cutting back and forth between a handful of storylines.
Those storylines include, as the title suggests, the hospital’s story: the exhausted nurses and doctors who work furiously on JFK only to then find themselves trying to save his alleged killer hours later. There’s also the FBI agents who quickly surmise that Oswald had waltzed into their offices just weeks before he shot Kennedy, which sends the office into panic. We also watch the secret service men make their way through the uneasy day. But the two most intriguing storylines are the ones that are more intimately focused on single characters. Zapruder is played by Paul Giamatti, and he becomes a stand in for national mourning, his camera tethering him to the horror of the tragedy. James Badge Dale portrays an often overlooked character, Robert Oswald, Lee Harvey’s brother, who is struggling to come to grips with what his brother has done. In Breaking Bad fashion, Robert whispers to his brother through a glass booth in the police station: “I don’t know who you are.”
As a historical document, Parkland feels fresh because of its insistence on staying so close to the immediate events that there is no room for the complicated layers that have obscured our view of the assassination over the past 50 years. As a result, it feels like the kind of movie Dallas would like to have made about the assassination, a kind of elegy about processing tragedy and morning loss. Its slow and shaking procession makes the film feel plodding, lifted by sudden shots of dramatic adrenaline. And Dallas only gets one real knock, when the secret service come out of Parkland into the bright sun and see some cowboy-hatted detectives standing under a mesquite tree. “What a shitty place to die,” one of the agents remarks. Otherwise, the “City of Hate” moniker is offset by wholesome, well-meaning bit players like baby-faced Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden’s Nurse Doris, Zapruder and Oswald’s brother.
And yet, without the conspiracies, the media cluster, the strange character of Oswald, and the negligence and confusion, you’re left wondering just how the JFK assassination captivated the nation for so many decades. The steady, mournful tone makes for a film that is one dimensional, and its historical vignettes are more intriguing for their realistic texture than for any dramatic fodder. By stripping away the conspiracy and confusion, it is as if Parkland puts a period on 50 years of voyeuristic infatuation with the blackness and confusion of the JFK assassination. A president died, but it is time to move on.