MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Parkland’

Film: Parkland
Directed By: Peter Landesman
Screenplay By: Peter Landesman
Starring: James Badge Dale, Zac Efron, Jackie Earle Haley

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was one of the most seismic events of the entire twentieth century. People the world over can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kennedy had been shot – the shooting devastated a nation and evoked a sense of fatalism and disillusionment far beyond its borders. Unsurprisingly, the incident has inspired countless TV and film treatments, ranging from the highs of Oliver Stone’s 1991 opus JFK to innumerable dodgy miniseries. To this saturated category one may add Parkland, the latest attempt to examine the events of that fateful day in November 1963, and easily one of the dullest. Stuffed with reputable Hollywood names, it creaks under the weight of all its familiar faces and never finds focus for its multi-stranded narrative.

Named for the Dallas hospital to which the assassinated president was brought, Parkland looks at the experiences of a number of people who witnessed the events first-hand. One story thread focuses on the staff at the hospital, in particular the efforts of doctors Jim Carrico and Malcolm Perry (Zac Efron and Colin Hanks, respectively) and nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) to revive him. Another depicts Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), brother of Lee, as he learns the horrifying truth of his brother’s actions. A third thread follows Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who was filming the President’s motorcade when he was shot and whose video is then seized upon by the Secret Service. Others still follow the Secret Service agents left to repatriate the body and the FBI office in Dallas, whose agents realise with dismay that they may have had an opportunity to pick up Oswald weeks earlier.

Parkland is, by definition, a rather grim and serious affair. Assassinations don’t really lend themselves to fanfare, but the film is crucially lacking in focus, engagement, and basic drive. The depiction of the shooting itself is telling for the rest of the film – we see it from Zapruder’s perspective as he films, his eyes widening in shock and horror as the car suddenly zips away to a cacophony of screams. There’s no noise to signify the gunshot and no music to build momentum. Even for an incident that everyone knows is coming, it feels oddly underplayed – an aside, or footnote almost, with no real gravitas given over to the fear and panic that erupted in its aftermath. Kennedy was a symbol of hope and strength for the US and his brutal murder was a cataclysmic shock, yet the film lends it no currency. Knowing its historical context as a viewer is one thing, but for a film specifically predicated around the events of that day and what followed, the shooting itself needs some semblance of power.

It follows from this that many of the succeeding events lack presence and impact. The president is rushed to the emergency room and doctors work frantically on trying to revive him, but the despair and desperation that surely filled the room is completely absent from the film. Much like the lifeless body on the table, it’s stuffed with shell-shocked faces all gawking disbelievingly at one another, but there’s no compulsion in it. Moments that could have been probed further, such as the mad scramble to get the body into a coffin and back on a plane to DC – while, elsewhere, Secret Service agents argue as to whether to rush Johnson out of state and leave Jackie to deal with her dead husband alone – are recounted as dutiful minutiae, where stronger direction might have focused on the chaos as representative of the wider panic. The actors do acquit themselves admirably (even doe-eyed Efron) but their emoting seems out of place in such a sluggish, uninvolving narrative. The sequence of events is treated with an absence of passion so profound that it all feels mechanical or even procedural.

The only storyline which comes close to engaging the viewer is that of Robert Oswald, finely played by James Badge Dale. Robert is forced to come to terms first with his brother’s horrendous actions and then, barely two days later, his being shot on live TV. Dale’s numbed face and ambling stance seems more indicative of the wider mood than anything else in the film. He stumbles from his unhinged mother to his brother, deriding him for leaving such a hateful legacy to all with the family name, and then is forced to endure a chilling warning to leave the city from the local police force. Unlike most of the characters, Dale’s is an easy one to root for – an everyman confronted with his brother’s diabolical shame who must then struggle to bury him with some degree of dignity. Oswald’s funeral is a particularly poignant moment, as his wearied brother must ask for help from the photographers littering an empty graveyard to carry the coffin and fill in the plot. It contrasts starkly with the image of Kennedy’s coffin, bathed in sunlight on the plane as weeping attendants grieve for the loss of their young and charismatic leader. It may not have been the makers’ intention to make you feel for the family of the assassin, but there’s something much more affecting about the image of an ordinary man burdened with a double tragedy in the midst of the wider nation’s grief.

Despite the significance of its subject matter, Parkland somehow manages to come across as a very half-hearted, incomplete film. It offers lots of platitudes and notable names but never got round to putting together a decent script or atmosphere. For an incident so oft-examined on film as this, there has to be an original slant, and this feels too much like a noble-minded but undernourished TV movie.

Review written by: Grace Duffy

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2 Responses to “MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Parkland’”

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  2. HaulixJames says:

    I hate the spam below so I decided to leave a real comment instead.

    ‘Parkland’ had a lot of great actors with absolutely nothing to do. It felt like a made for TV moving that completely forgot to include any type of message. Events happen, just as they did in real life, then the credits roll. I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly consider that ‘storytelling’