"Everyone ready? You all know what's on here, right? And we're sure you're ready?"
With the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination on President John F. Kennedy just one week away, there has been a crush of films, books, documentaries and television shows surrounding the event. One film in particular, Parkland, got lost in the shuffle when it had an all too brief theatrical run in early October, and that's extremely unfortunate because it's one of the least exploitative looks at the assassination ever made. While most of these seek to deal with the onslaught of conspiracy theories and effect that the assassination had on the country, almost every one, including Oliver Stone's film named after the President himself, have seemingly forgotten the man whose life ended that day.
Parkland tells several interweaving stories involving various people in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) was a local businessman who rushed to Dealey Plaza with his 8mm Bell & Howell camera to record a home video of the President's motorcade as it passed. Dr. Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) was a resident at Parkland Memorial Hospital, in the middle of a long shift that seemed as if it would never end. James Hosty (Ron Livingston) was an FBI Agent in Dallas who was potentially sitting on information about a local Dallas man that was a known lunatic by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong). Oswald's brother Robert (James Badge Dale) was a quiet father, holding down a respectable job and relishing his anonymity. Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) was the Secret Service agent in charge of the President's visit to Dallas, and had put the city under, what he thought, were unprecedented security measures to ensure the President's safety.
A little before 1pm, all of that changed when shots were fired as the President's motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza. Zapruder captures the assassination on film and the President is rushed to Parkland Hospital where his body is met by Dr. Carrico. Lee Oswald is picked up that afternoon after shooting a police officer, and news of his arrest sends Robert into a frenzy to discover how and why his brother may have been involved in the President's death. The Secret Service scramble to protect Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Sean McGraw) from any potential harm that may come to him, and everyone in Dallas is trying to make sense of exactly what happened and why, hoping that Zapruder's film may hold the answers to those questions.
The film is never better than in its first thirty minutes as all of these many characters are introduced in brief but memorable ways, and the film's true genius lies in how easily it brings all of these characters together. The scenes in the hospital as the doctors and nurses try in vain to save President Kennedy's life are among some of the most heart wrenching and intense scenes ever put on film in regard to this event. The various nurses and Secret Service agents stand by helplessly in the room as Carrico and chief resident Dr. Malcolm Perry (Colin Hanks) do all they can to revive him. It's intense and all the more despairing because we know the outcome of their efforts. The ensuing scenes when Kennedy's wife Jacqueline (Kat Steffens) and a priest (Jackie Earle Haley) offering last rites are the most powerful in the entire film, and help the audience to feel the full gravity of what had just transpired.
The film doesn't necessarily lose focus after this, but what follows lacks urgency, simply because we already know that even fifty years later, there were no answers to be had that day. The race to get Zapruder's film developed and seen by the Secret Service makes for a compelling second storyline, and it's fascinating to watch. Thankfully writer/director Peter Landesman is smart enough not to actually show Zapruder's film, which has been played to the point where it has almost lost its impact, and instead chooses to focus on the reactions of the people viewing it for the first time. The scenes involving the FBI office, and James Hosty are also interesting, particularly once Oswald's name comes up as the prime suspect and his superior (Jason Douglas) wants to know why he didn't report the information he had on Oswald.
It's the film's almost total shift of focus to the Oswald family in the third act that truly weakens the film. Robert Oswald's story, and his devotion to his lunatic mother (Jacki Weaver, going deliriously over-the-top) and even his brother, despite what's being said about him, is interesting in its own way, but make for a far less compelling story than the one concerning the other characters in the film. The scenes are strongly executed and fascinating in their own way, but pale in comparison to the rest of the story. It likely could have made a brilliant film on its own merits, but the tangential connection to the rest of the events (Oswald ends up in the same Parkland Operating Room, after being shot by Jack Ruby, that the President died in just 24 hours earlier) makes it feel like a separate movie at times.
The performances are outstanding all the way around. Giamatti is fantastic as Abraham Zapruder, infusing the character with tremendous pathos. Thornton is always great, and his appearance in this film will make you wish he did more films since he's such a committed presence. The periphery characters like Parkland's head nurse played by Marcia Gay Harden and the secret service agents played by Tom Welling, Mark Duplass and Gil Bellows are equally good and flesh out the world in a very realistic way. Zac Efron surprised me the most of the primary cast members, in that I never expected him to do work of this caliber. I'm sure he's got acting chops that can be exploited in some way, but no one's been able to get a performance this well-rounded out of him before, and I think he will most assuredly surprise you.
James Badge Dale is also very good and grounded, though his subplot is the most superfluous, and gives us the oddest performance in the entire film via Jacki Weaver's Marguerite Oswald. While she may be doing a spot-on impression of the real woman, her voice and mannerisms seem completely out of step with the rest of the film and are truly jarring in context. It's such an odd set of scenes and a truly bizarre character for an otherwise realistic film. This is honestly the only point and plot on which I fault Landesman, who otherwise did a bang-up job for his first directorial effort.
Parkland is a truly unique film in that it tells a multi-character, multi-story arc in a shade over ninety minutes. It almost feels as if it's over just after it began, and I mean that as high praise. It's the kind of film that isn't made much anymore. It doesn't have an agenda or a list of stylistic flourishes it needs to check off, it's just a tight, intense film told incredibly well by a talented cast. History buffs will enjoy it on an entirely different level, and appreciate it's adherence to the events of the day, but as entertainment, it succeeds in ways I didn't think possible. The film was just released on Blu-Ray and DVD, and I would highly recommend seeking it out as a way of remembering this somber anniversary.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]