Parkland explores the immediate aftermath of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. The film follows the chaos that ensued through the lens of a kaleidoscopic narrative that unfolds from the perspectives of several otherwise average individuals, who find themselves caught up in the resulting storm (one way or another).
The lineup includes young and inexperienced Dr. Charles “Jim” Carrico (Zac Efron) and the more seasoned Nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) – among other employees at Parkland Hospital – who unexpectedly find themselves engaged in a desperate fight to save the president’s life. Also featured are Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), an ordinary cameraman who inadvertently captures key footage of the Kennedy shooting, and Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), a man who must deal with consequences that his brother, Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) have – and continue to have – on his family.
Parkland is based on Vincent Bugliosi’s non-fiction book Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as was adapted for the big screen by writer/director Peter Landesman (who co-wrote the critically-derided 2007 child exploitation drama, Trade). Essentially the first half of Landesman’s Parkland script is dedicated to recounting the harrowing fallout of the Kennedy shooting, before the second half examines how those who were most closely involved (medical staff, federal agents, and so on) started to pick up the pieces – only to be knocked down once more, when L. Harvey Oswald was caught and killed while in the custody of the Dallas police shortly thereafter.
Problem is, Parkland highlights just how grueling the experience must’ve been for people so close to JFK’s death, yet skimps on the details of how the president being slaughtered affected individual people in different ways; instead, many of the characters react so very alike so that, in turn, their presence feels like overkill (since they fail to shed new light or insight during this figurative peek behind the curtain). Moreover, the film neglects to give proper attention to scenes that foreshadow how the event had longterm emotional and practical consequences on the U.S. as a whole. Such elements are so briefly (and hastily) touched upon that, by the time the film ends, it feels like Parkland has done little more than exploit JFK’s murder through a cinematic recreation.
The proceedings begin on a strong note, as the movie’s opening act captures the tumultuous nature of the hours following JFK being shot through Landesman’s direction, in coordination with precise camerawork by the cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) and editing by Markus Czyzewski and Leo Trombetta (alum of the TV show Mad Men) – despite the score by James Newton Howard, which is surprisingly too melodramatic in context (an unusual slip-up for the lauded composer). However, even on the technical side, things begin to slow down thereafter and become increasingly ham-fisted and ineffective in action (see: the attempt to use Godfather-esque cross-cutting for thematic effect during the climax).
Mind you, it’s a successful exploitation during the first act. However, the absence of decent intellectual/emotional payoff during Parkland‘s second and third acts ultimately make the overall viewing experience too manipulative. Possibly even a little morally reprehensible in the end – when it feels as though Landesman’s script is using a real historical event (as horrific as JFK’s death) as an excuse for actors to deliver pretentious declarations and engage in cheap histrionics. Unfortunately, Landesman must also be assigned the lion’s share of blame for Parkland‘s failings in general, simply because it was he who directed the film (and is his feature-length debut as director).
As a whole, Parkland‘s cast is fairly strong and certain members of the ensemble manage to elevate the dubious script (while others, sadly, turn in flat and unmemorable performances). Talented character actors/actresses like Paul Giamatti, Marcia Gay Harden and James Badge Dale are engaging as ever, while other capable folk like Billy Bob Thornton and Ron Livingston – as key members of the Secret Service and FBI (respectively) – make the most of their limited screen time. Unfortunately, the usually-dependable Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) is too hammy as the delusional Oswald matriarch, while fresher-faces like Zac Efron and Colin Hanks (whose father, Tom Hanks, co-produced the film) don’t leave much of an impression, good or bad. Finally, there are a number of odd drive-by (read: blink and miss ‘em) appearances by skilled actors like Bryan Batt (Salvatore on Mad Men) and Jackie Earle Haley in the film.
(NOTE: For all you Smallville fans out there: Tom Welling only appears in Parkland for a short amount of time and, unfortunately, it’s probably for the best that he doesn’t hang around longer than that.)
To sum all these critiques up: there’s a scene in Parkland where a character begs a member of the press to not publish the stills that show JFK being shot, because he feels that there is nothing positive for the public to gain by seeing them (beyond indulging some macabre sense of fascination, that is). The way that Parkland ends up handling its subject matter, it feels as though such a criticism might be equally applicable to the majority of the movie.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Parkland:
Parkland is now playing in limited theatrical release. It is 93 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for bloody sequences of ER trauma procedures, some violent images and language, and smoking throughout.