Parkland takes place on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas, in the eye of the hurricane that was U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The focus of the film, though, is not the assassinated leader, but the people on the periphery of the shooting that were called upon to do their duty in the midst of horror and tragedy.
Based on the Vincent Bugliosi novel Four Days in November, Parkland introduces us to characters affected and afflicted by the events of that day, but does little to make these people and their stories compelling.
Among the true-life people that the film chronicles are Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), who had never lost a president on his watch, and Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), a tailor who documented footage of the assassination on his 8mm camera. As expected, the assassination stuns both men, but writer/director Peter Landesman doesn’t know how to turn their reactions to the events into compelling drama. Thinly drawn, they look like incomplete figures standing against a historical backdrop of dread and hopelessness.
Another fascinating story reduced to a few choice scenes involves Robert Oswald, the perpetrator’s brother played by James Badge Dale, and Marguerite Oswald (Jacki Weaver), the shooter’s firecracker of a mother. Robert responds to the shooting by condemning his brother, while Marguerite proclaims that her son’s arrest is all a government conspiracy.
To spend more time in the shoes of the Oswald family would give an intriguing perspective to how their lives changed as a result of having a man like Lee Harvey in their family. Could their lives ever maintain normalcy again? Director Peter Landesman reveals their gut responses to this realization, but then lets them off the hook. The audience is left with more incomplete character arcs, with the rest of the history shelved for pre-credits text that explains what happened to the Oswalds.
Parkland comes from producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (Band of Brothers), and begins by blending in news broadcasts and archival footage with cheaply lit live-action scenes. The film’s small budget is further emphasized by the use of shaky camera; often a signifier of neorealism but here it is a distraction when trying to observe the day’s more shattering moments.
Director Peter Landesman is a journalist whose 2004 New York Times expose on widespread sex slavery in the U.S. received some scrutiny for exaggeration. With that known, is an audience supposed to buy the moment where a shaken Jackie Kennedy sobs on her husband’s bloodied torso as he lies on the operating table? We can only take the director at his word.
Also: did a doctor tenderly put his hand on Jackie’s shoulder as she leaned over her husband’s corpse, stating “It’s time to say goodbye”? This is just one of many trite lines of dialogue that reinforces how one is watching scripted re-enactments of a true story.
Luckily, Badge Dale and Giamatti are good actors, both elevating the slim material to give more to their characters than what Landesman’s script provides. In one of the film’s best moments, the camera closes tight on Giamatti’s face as his character watches the motorcade pass, showing his immediate horror after hearing three gunshots. What the film does manage to tell, effectively, is the sense of dread and panic that quickly befell both the nation and those in close proximity to the shooting, from the Parkland hospital staff to the Secret Service agents to the vice president. There was no time to mourn.
A solemn mood sustains, especially underneath James Newton Howard’s dreary, monotonous score. The latter half watches how these supporting characters react to the death, but aside from moping and grieving, the film does not have much personal history to teach us. An episode in Mad Men’s third season, The Grown Ups, more effectively chronicled how Kennedy’s assassination spread shockwaves through American society.
Take out the end credits and Parkland only runs around 85 minutes, which means that these story cuts were likely a budgetary concern. However, if one decides to direct a commemorative film about one of the darkest days in American history, wouldn’t the money be better spent exploring these rich stories in depth, instead of offering a mere glimpse in order to afford a movie star? It does not pay off.
I suggest that you keep Parkland at bay and instead, tune in closer to the half-centennial, when documentaries that revisit the compelling stories of November 22, 1963 pop up on television news and public broadcasting.
Parkland is a frustratingly slight docudrama that does a poor job of explaining why its many characters, which stand on the periphery of JFK's assassination, are intriguing historical figures whose stories deserve to be told.