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“What a shitty place to die.”
Whatever your feelings about Dallas, that’s a pretty harsh assessment. Then again, the character in Peter Landesman’s well-intentioned but unfulfilling Parkland who says it, an aide to fallen President John F. Kennedy, can probably be forgiven for his snotty Yankee attitude.
Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK (by the coward Lee Harvey Oswald). Prepare yourself for a deluge of articles, thinkpieces, hashtags, and lists (JFK’s Hottest Mistresses!) in the coming weeks dedicated to the that act’s enduring significance. We’ll be reminded once again how it plunged the U.S. into a crisis of identity and confidence from which it would take decades to recover, and many will speculate about what might have been: Could Vietnam have been avoided? Would it still be Idlewild Airport? For Texas correspondents like myself, the event is especially bittersweet, considering the negative associations it conjured for many outside the state.
Parkland hints at the enormity of what took place on November 22, 1963, but largely confines itself to the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book Four Days in November, the film shifts between several perspectives: the doctors and nurses of Parkland Memorial Hospital, the FBI agents tracking the killer and the Secret Service men dealing with the fallout, dressmaker Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who shot the most famous home movie in history, and Oswald’s family—specifically his brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), and mother, Marguerite (Jacki Weaver)—who have sharply divergent reactions to the news of their family member’s actions.
Landesman eschews reenactments in favor of splicing his actors into archival footage, avoiding a documentary feel and keeping the focus on those chaotic hours just after the shooting. Reactions are confined to those directly involved, with the only indications of a widening gyre of grief and confusion coming from clips of the now-famous elegies of Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley.
Parkland’s more powerful scenes come early on, when Kennedy is rushed to the hospital’s emergency room. As the staff’s attempts to save him grow more desperate, the president’s blood increasingly covers the room—and the doctors and nurses. This comes in stark contrast to the washed-out hues of Zapruder’s historic film, and is in a way symbolic of the far-reaching implications of the crime: It touches everyone.
Following Kennedy’s death, tempers flare in the Secret Service, both in response to a fruitless attempt by the medical examiner to keep Kennedy’s body in Dallas (less a sinister government plot than jurisdictional pissing match, it seems) and to criticisms of the local team. The latter is led by Dallas agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), who explodes after being told, “You blew it.” Also up for blame is the FBI, in the person of James Hosty (Ron Livingston at his hangdog-ingest), the agent who had been tasked with investigating Oswald upon his return from the Soviet Union in 1962.
It’s in the film’s second half that Parkland goes all Tony Romo and fumbles. Instead of becoming truly engrossing, it threatens to descend into unreserved melodrama, complete with a score by James Newton Howard that would fit any early episode of The West Wing.
Ironically enough, the noblest character depicted is Bob Oswald, an honest, hardworking, and otherwise unremarkable man plunged into a surreal and heretofore unimaginable situation: brother to a presidential assassin, his name forever linked to one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century. Dale admirably captures this pathos, displaying his vulnerability at his brother’s funeral, where he practically begs reporters in attendance to serve as pallbearers for a man they likely considered undeserving of a proper burial. All this is juxtaposed in direct (and obvious) contrast to the massive turnout for Kennedy’s funeral procession.
Landesman ignores any conspiracy angles, not counting Lee Harvey Oswald nonchalantly telling Bob not to trust “so-called evidence” and Marguerite’s repeated assertions that Lee was a covert U.S. intelligence operative. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, considering Bugliosi famously penned a pro–Warren Commission book a few years ago. And it isn’t as if Lee Harvey and his mom are unimpeachable sources.
But for a film about such a momentous event, the cast doesn’t always rise to the occasion. Dale, Giamatti, and Marcia Gay Harden (as Parkland’s head nurse) are convincing, but it’s a lot harder to sell an unshaven Zac Efron (as Dr. Jim Carrico) or baby-faced Colin Hanks (as Parkland’s chief resident)—having his father on board as executive producer probably didn’t hurt.
Half a century on, it’s impossible to deny the lingering impact of Kennedy’s death on the national psyche. And yet, in spite of Bob Oswald’s fears, his family name hasn’t been forever blackened. (Anyone born after 1995 is more likely to recognize “Oswald” from the eponymous Nick Jr. TV show). However, I’ll maintain that, despite the continued existence of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Dallas is no worse a place to die than anywhere else. And whatever Texas’s other flaws, as Parkland shows, its citizens proved their mettle.