We like our political conspiracies the same way tabloid rags continue advertising Bat Boy's political affiliation every year. It's the idea that, no matter what kind of front our leaders are putting on, there's always something going on behind the scenes that makes sense of the inexplicable. With John F. Kennedy there were fears going into his Presidency that he was going to be a pawn for the Pope, and it took little time for people to start propping up their theories about what really happened that day. Sometimes those obsessions made fodder for excellent films, but mostly they are reassuring fictions we share with each other to make sense out of the impossible task of running a country.
Parkland is admirable in the way it strips the assassination of John F. Kennedy of the many narratives that came afterward. It's as straightforward a procedural as we're likely to get about the day of his death and the three days afterward. Through seamless editing we follow a sprawling cast of characters filmed mostly in close-up as they try to fulfill their professional duties in the face of a monumental tragedy.
But Parkland only works as a document of those days, it's illustrative without illuminating. I can't fault the professionalism in either the presentation or many good to great performances that litter the film. Yet, in the face of all that craft, I have to wonder just who this film is going to be for. Enthusiasts of this moment in history are likely to have read the Vincent Bugliosi book that goes into even greater detail the four days we watch unfold.
And unfold it does with exacting clarity through multiple story lines anchored by many familiar faces. Zac Efron and Marcia Gay Harden are medical professionals who try to save the President and later his assassin. Billy Bob Thornton plays the investigator who is trying to piece together what happened, knowing that they lies in the Zapruder film. Zapruder is played by the always dependable Paul Giamatti, who can scarcely imagine the storm that he would be in the center of when all he wanted to do was test out his camera. There's Jackie Weaver as Lee Harvey Oswald's conspiracy-obsessed mother and James Badge Dale as his brother, who just wants to get through this new focus on his family with their health and safety intact.
Director and screenwriter Peter Landesman traps everyone within the confines of their jobs. The dialogue varies only depending on the job currently onscreen - medical jargon and desperate cries for more blood, the investigators finding a place where they can develop this film right now, and a brother who's suddenly become the target for angry eyes throughout his town. Landesman's camera rarely gives us space to breathe, focusing tight on Thornton or Efron's faces during the most tense parts of their day, and only stepping back to watch a fight breakout between Federal and Dallas authorities over custody of the President's body.
It's because of this style that after the first ten minutes of Parkland are over we know there will be no surprises. After the first fifteen minutes we're watching what amounts to a lavish reproduction of a crime we'd see on America's Most Wanted. There's no time to really get into the emotions of the day, just for everyone to do what they know how to do and little else. At its worst, especially during the Thornton investigation, it seems like an excuse to reuse Walter Cronkite's announcement of Kennedy's death and other media, revisiting those moments for the sake of constantly reaffirming that this takes place in our collective history.
But that footage also serves as a grounding reminder that the day was not filled with people who would have a story to tell, but of folks who threw themselves into what they knew to get through the day. When they fail at their jobs we get glimpses of the turmoil within. They're fleeting, but highlight an aspect of history that we rarely get to visit.
Still, despite Oswald's mother saying, "This is my story too," we don't really get those stories. Landesman simply reminds us of something that wasn't in question - that day in Dallas was chaotic. I admire Landesman for embracing the professionalism of those who worked that day, but all the streamlined craft and dependable performances in the world can't show new facets on facts that are not in dispute.
Screenplay written and directed by Peter Landesman.
Starring an ensemble cast with Colin Hanks, Paul Giamatti, and others.