This November will be the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. There will be TV specials, memorials, and think pieces. Peter Landesman’s Parkland looks beyond the assassination and even President Kennedy to examine the surrounding figures on that infamous day and their roles in one of the most important events in American history. It’s a paradoxical film that mythologizes the people who have been overlooked by the history books, but also demythologizes the actual events by showing the details that were overshadowed by the moment when the course of history changed. The result is a movie that captivates in how it depicts little moments from average people, but also undermines the story’s power by forcing drama on an inherently dramatic situation.
Parkland takes place on the day of the Kennedy assassination and the three days thereafter. The story follows a handful of people who were drawn into the orbit of history through their proximity to Kennedy’s death and the hunt to find his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. The names we know—Kennedy, Oswald, Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson—are minor roles in Parkland. Instead, the focus is on young doctor Charles “Jim” Carrico (Zac Efron), who was on call when Kennedy was brought into Parkland Hospital; FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), who had been keeping an eye on Oswald for the previous 18 months; Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), the Dallas Secret Service agent in charge when Kennedy was shot; Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), Lee’s brother; and the most famous character among the cast, Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), whose name would become synonymous with his film of the assassination. Nurses, agents, and others who were caught in the immediate wake of the tragedy surround the film’s central figures.
The Kennedy assassination is famous for numerous reasons, but Parkland wisely shows the event on a micro scale. Landesman’s close-up on the chaos makes the events feel more immediate to the point where we almost forget that the doctors aren’t going to save Kennedy or Oswald. The writer-director effectively throws us back into the tide of history because we’ve never experienced this side of the story. There are fleeting glances at the famous people and indelible moments, but their impact has been lessened through repetition and time. When Landesman looks at Zapruder’s footage reflected in the man’s glasses, the horror of that day rushes back to life. It’s no longer a history lesson.
But Landesman occasionally feels the need to needlessly remind us about the importance of the event as if we could possibly forget. When Jackie weeps over the body of her husband, we don’t need the frame rate to slow down, the camera to move in for a close-up, and the sad music to intrude on this tragic moment. It’s far more effective simply to see how crowded the room is, and how even in death there’s no private moment between a wife and her slain husband. A beloved president is dead and his life touched everyone because at the time, he was more than a man. He was the ideal of what Americans could be, and he died before the country would inevitably become disillusioned. But forcefully emphasizing the hope Kennedy represented turns the man into a Christ-figure, and if you missed that connection, a giant crucifix is laid on his body and later on his coffin. The human element that is meant to give the film its uniqueness is dwarfed by the giant in their midst.
Thankfully, Landesman is mostly able to walk the line of presenting a dramatization and drawing our attention to the minutiae that makes the event relatable rather than legendary. When we recall the Kennedy assassination, we don’t think about how his giant coffin got on the tiny airplane. We don’t know that Zapruder’s famous footage had to be developed in a photo lab, and this crucial historic record could have been lost due to the technician’s unfamiliarity in developing 8mm. We see history in broad strokes, but it can be equally compelling when we see the minor individuals who became a part of this history.
When November 22, 2013 rolls around, the history of the Kennedy assassination will likely be presented in the abstract. We’ll go through the scenes we’ve seen before—the Zapruder footage, Walter Cronkite’s live report on the President’s death, Jack Ruby gunning down Oswald on live television, the President’s funeral. It’s a morbid highlight reel, and Parkland brings some semblance of humanity back to the history. Kennedy’s death touched millions of people. It’s worthwhile to spend time with a few of them.
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