The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has already fueled so many movies and books and documentaries, there would seem to be little drama left to wring from it. But Parkland finds a way. Writer-director Peter Landesman chooses to focus on the people relegated to supporting characters by history: Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the man who famously captured the murder on his Super 8 camera; Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale) who first learns what his brother Lee has done via a radio news report; Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), whose chief task that day was to make sure Kennedy’s visit to Dallas went off without a hitch; FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), who had received a threatening letter from Lee Oswald 10 days before the shooting but paid it no mind; and the doctors and nurses (Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Colin Hanks) at the eponymous hospital who treated the mortally wounded president, and later his killer, to no avail.
Based on the first half of Vincent Bugliosi’s mammoth, scrupulously researched Reclaiming History: The Assassination Of President John F. Kennedy, Parkland relegates the usual focal points such as Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (Sean McGraw) and Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) to extended cameos: The camera barely shows us Jackie’s face, out of respect and a desire not to exploit. Even Lee Oswald (Jeremy Strong), the nexus of all the conspiracy theories that sprang from the killing, only gets one scene (although it’s a doozy).
Parkland is wildly uneven, although compulsively watchable. The all-star casting is sometimes distracting (Efron’s presence in particular seems like a sop to court a younger audience). The drama is sometimes heavy-handed, such as a needlessly long scene in which distraught secret service agents tear out the seats from the airplane that will carry Kennedy’s coffin back to Washington. And the actors aren’t always attuned to the same wavelength. As the Oswalds’ demanding, self-serving mother, Jacki Weaver goes so far over the top she almost topples the film into camp. And even Oliver Stone would have nixed a shot of Jackie carrying some of her husband’s brain matter into the E.R. in her hands
But for every false step Parkland takes, Landesman offers a corrective. The scenes emphasizing Robert Oswald’s emotional duress put you in the shoes of an innocent man whose brother had suddenly become the most hated person in the country. The tumult inside the FBI office where Lee Oswald’s damning letter was hand-delivered (by the killer himself!) is tense and stressful as an agency that thrives on secrecy tries to prevent the world from learning about its flub. And I had never seen a movie depict the behind-closed-doors negotiations between Zapruder and the editor of Life magazine, the publication that ultimately won the bidding rights to publish his film. Sharply edited and factually accurate, Parkland recounts a dark day in American history with compassion and lament.