A review of the new film PARKLAND

In this blog entry, Temple University Press publicist Gary Kramer, reviews Parkland the new film about the JFK Assassination.

Released weeks ahead of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Parkland tells several stories—based on true events—that unfolded in Dallas during the horrible days in history that were November 22-25, 1963. Writer/director Peter Landesman (adapting Vincent Bugliosi’s book Four Days in November) introduces the players and their stories efficiently. Charles “Jim” Carrico (Zac Efron) is a doctor at Parkland hospital where the president is transported after he is shot; Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) shoots the famous home movie of the president’s assassination, which Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) asks him to hand over; Bob Oswald (James Badge Dale) learns that his brother Lee Harvey (Jeremy Strong) has been arrested for the shocking crime, and visits his brother and his mother (Jackie Weaver), who shares wild theories about her son; and James Hosty (Ron Livingston) is an FBI agent who was following Oswald at the time of the assassination.

parklandParkland uses these interlocking stories to present microcosms of grief that show how JFK’s death affected these individuals separately and collectively and, by extension, the nation as a whole. However, the parts here are greater than the sum. The urgency of the assassination is not nearly as striking as the scenes in the O.R. as Carrico works to save the president’s life. As the doctor tries to revive his patient, even as the flatline indicates death, the scene manages—albeit barely—to evoke some emotion, then goes overboard when Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) arrives.

The rest of the film is equal parts hit or miss. A dispute that arises when the local medical examiner insists on keeping the body in Texas, as per law, is an interesting diversion, but it serves  mostly to illustrate that Parkland is a series of loosely connected anecdotes that never build to any great crescendo. When one character remarks, “Nothing is ever going to be the same,” the line has no impact.

Even moments that revolve around one character are uneven. The early scenes of Zapruder reacting to the shooting are played broadly, whereas Landesman achieves a more graceful moment in a scene that shows the assassination footage reflected in Zapruder’s eyeglasses. The image of the man watching the striking footage he shot effectively conveys his emotions to viewers.

Landesman nicely incorporates the archive footage of Kennedy with the Zapruder video, given the small scale and narrow focus of the film, but he also includes cringe-inducing scenes of Secret Service men trying to accommodate the president’s coffin on the plane. A sequence that cross-cuts between Oswald’s burial and Agent Hosty burning his file on Oswald is also heavy-handed.

Even the acting ranges from subtle—James Badge Dale gives a rather poignant performance in his difficult role—to over-the-top in Jackie Weaver’s case. Zac Efron is miscast as Carrico here; he just seems out of his league; Marcia Gay Harden, the head nurse, easily upstages him. Even Paul Giamatti, who is well suited to his role, fares poorly, sabotaged by the lame script.

Dangerous Knowledge 2e_smUltimately, Parkland is an earnest effort that is more leaden than solemn.  

For a more exacting analysis of the JFK Assassination in art and film, one should read Art Simon’s Dangerous Knowledge, which was recently reissued by Temple University Press. While Simon does not cover Parkland in his book, he discusses public fascination with celebrity deaths and recent assassination-related media—from documentaries to scholarly books to the scandalous video game JFK Reloaded. He shows that the assassination continues to inspire writers, artists, and filmmakers.  Dangerous Knowledge examines the seminal works of art associated with the assassination, including Andy Warhol’s silk screens, the underground films of Bruce Conner, and provocative Hollywood films like The Parallax View and JFK. Simon’s investigation places assassination art and images within a historical context—one that helps us understand what the assassination has meant to American culture.

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