Editor’s note: Kate’s review of Parkland originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited release.
Eventually someone will attend a showing of Peter Landesman’s Parkland and need to be reminded that President John F. Kennedy went to Dallas, Texas in November of 1963, only to be gunned down during a motorcade through streets lined with well-wishers, but the film’s pre-opening credits text that convey that information is an eye-rolling start to a generally inoffensive film.
Centered on the moments just before JFK’s assassination until the day the beloved president was buried (the same day, incidentally, his murderer was also laid to rest), Landesman’s film attempts to convey the emotional and historical impact of the death through the stories and perspectives of various people involved in his final hours. A large cast (including such draws as Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti, and Marcia Gay Harden, in addition to many, many more) gamely take on interesting if not entirely invigorating material and the result is something entirely unfulfilling, though well-intentioned.
Parkland swiftly introduces us to both major players (from FBI agents to Secret Service men to the doctors and nurses of Parkland Hospital, the film’s namesake and where JFK ultimately passed away) and various locations that will prove important (the hospital itself, Dealey Plaza, the FBI field office in Dallas, Abraham Zapruder’s office), all identified by way of nifty on-screen text. It’s a bit of a cheat, but it works, and for the film’s first half, Landesman adeptly juggles all of his many characters, many locations, and many emotions. The film clips right along with the maximum of efficiency, but it may just be the (obviously incorrect) possibility that tragedy will be averted that keeps everything ticking, because once Kennedy is gone, everything instantly flatlines alongside him. Longer sequences stretch on, attention is spent on unworthy characters, other elements are pushed aside, and what previously worked together so fluidly just goes limp. Parkland barely makes it through its slim ninety-minute runtime.
While Parkland adequately delivers information about the assassination (unless you’re looking for conspiracy theories, which only pop up here briefly, thanks to Jacki Weaver’s bonkers performance as Lee Harvey Oswald’s also bonkers mother), it also tries to examine the fallout of such an event in personal ways. What will Abraham Zapruder’s (Giamatti) life be like in the wake of his infamous 8mm tape? Where will Lee Harvey Oswald’s incredulous brother Robert (Dale) go from here? Will FBI Agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) ever get over the sense that he let Oswald slip through his fingers? With so many characters and such a tight runtime, Landesman only briefly touches on these very big questions, and the final product fails to satisfy because of it.
Viscerally and visually speaking, though, Parkland does leave a mark. There is a tremendous amount of blood in the film – all over the Kennedys, sticking to the shirts and jackets of their aides and the Secret Service men, on the doctors’ and nurses’ white coats, bathing the floor of the hospital room, sticking to walls – and it’s hard to shake. Landesman also does well by other kinds of imagery, from Kennedy’s casket to its jury-rigged space on Air Force One to various shots of Jackie (Kat Steffans) moving like a ghost. In terms of what we see on screen, much of it is miles more effective than anything else that’s said.
With such a loaded cast, no one actor or actress has the opportunity to truly lead the film in a traditional sense (but Paul Giamatti could do far worse for himself than if he decided to make a film just about Abraham Zapruder), though there are plenty of small, powerful turns from talents like Livingston, Dale, Mark Duplass, Tom Welling, and David Harbour to keep the performance bar high. Other cast members are (predictably enough) lost in the shuffle, and the early portion of Zac Efron’s work is marked by hammy line delivery and a creeping sense of his being woefully miscast in the role. Even Marcia Gay Harden doesn’t get to do much, beyond mournfully huffing from time to time, something most of the film’s audience will likely find themselves doing as well.
The Upside: A handful of small and solid performances, effective imagery, a very well-crafted first half.
The Downside: A number of wasted cast members, an emotionally unfulfilling script, and a dangerously slack final half.
On the Side: The film is loosely based on Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November,” though only Landesman is credited as a screenwriter.