A film review by Craig J. Koban October 25 , 2013  


2013, PG-13, 93 mins.


Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder  /  Colin Hanks as Dr. Malcom Perry  /  Zac Efron as Jim Carrico  /  Billy Bob Thornton as Forrest Sorrels  /  Marcia Gay Harden as Doris Nelson  /  Jacki Weaver as Marguerite Oswald  /  Tom Welling as Roy Kellerman  /  Ron Livingston as James Hosty  /  Jackie Earle Haley as Father Oscar Huber

Written and directed by Peter Landesman

I can certainly understand the noble intentions of the makers of PARKLAND.  The assassination of John F. Kennedy will have a 50th Anniversary as of this November, so the inclination by historians and filmmakers to revisit this dreadful day in American history seems only inevitable.  Interestingly, PARKLAND – partially based on the Vincent Bugliosi book RECLAIMING HISTORY: THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY – is not interested at all in the myriad of multiple conspiracy theories that have plagued doubters of the particulars of JFK’s death.  Instead, it displays an uncommon amount of tact for honing in on the human-interest stories of those behind-the-scenes of that day in November 22, 1963. 

The real problem with this approach, though, is that it focuses so much time on so many characters and rickshaws back and forth between them all rather haphazardly during its already brief 90-minute running time.  The film – from journalist-turned-director Peter Landesman and from producers Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton – has ambition for trying to explore the nature of Kennedy’s tragic murder through the eyes of people – both in government and outside of it – that were affected by it.  Yet, there are simply too many personas, too many side-stories, too many detours, and an overall lack of symmetry to the overall film.  At times, I was wishing for the makers to, say, focus an entire film on one single character over another.  Instead, it wants to cover as much ground as possible, which results in a film that feels rushed and unfinished. 

PARKLAND takes its title from the hospital in Dallas, Texas where both JFK and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, were taken to and then pronounced dead.  The film begins on the day of the assassination and Landesman utilizes archival footage alongside recreation footage (dutifully, but rather blandly) to show the President and the First Lady enter their motorcade car and proceed to Dealey Plaza.  Concurrent to this is the film’s introduction to many of the film’s side characters, like Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), whose name has become synonymous with the assassination, as it was his 8mm movie camera that filmed Kennedy being slain.  Out of decent respect, the film never shows the kill-shot, which is appropriate, and instead opts to show reactions to it.  Besides, have we not already seen it a multitude of times in the past? 



Beyond this, the film then chronicles the next few days of the aftermath of the assassination.  As the nation mourns, members of the FBI spring into action, and FBI veteran Forrest Sorrels (a stalwart and decent Billy Bob Thornton) and his crew meet up with Zapruder in order to get his film developed and inspected before the media can.  One of the more compelling storylines here is how his 8mm footage was considered “high-tech” for its time, making finding a lab to process it quickly a challenge in itself.  The story then segues over to Dallas FBI Agent James Hosty (a reliably good Ron Livingston), who realizes the enormity of his indecision to do nothing about Oswald when the angry assassin contacted his office before the event.  The film does show Oswald (Jeremy Strong) being arrested and detained, but the more interesting character relating to him is that of his brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), who never once doubted that his sibling killed the president.  Their mother, on the other hand (Jacki Weaver, a wee tad over the top for her own good) vehemently maintained that Lee was framed. 

From here, the film deals with the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby…and then him being taken to Parkland Hospital where he’s pronounced dead after arrival…and then we see Lyndon Johnson sworn in as President…and then we see Zapruder anguish over whether or not to release his film to the government or to Life Magazine…and so on and so on.  Again, there’s enough stories here to fill a multi-part HBO mini-series, let alone a film that’s a far cry under two-hours.  The period design of PARKLAND is spot-on and the script certainly captures the essence of the mood of its times rather well, but what it woefully lacks is a thematic follow-through: What is PARKLAND really trying to ultimately say?  There are important stories here that deserve to be seen, but at what artistic cost?  More often than not, I felt like I was receiving the superficial Cliff Notes version of history rather than something truly profound or enlightening.  PARKLAND does very little to probe into or meaningfully expand upon its personas and the events before and after JFK’s murder.  Lingering questions of “what’s the point of this?” crept into my mind far too frequently while screening it. 

What’s an even bigger letdown is the fact that there’s ample grade-A talent on board here doing great work in an otherwise meandering and aimless narrative.  I especially gravitated towards Giamatti’s turn as Zapruder, who captures the man’s vulnerability, anguish and shock in the moments and days after the event.  The sheer enormity of the significance of his 8mm film – and the fact that he shot what would be one of the most scrutinized films in existence – would forever haunt Zapruder, and Giamatti gives just the right sensitively soulful performance to relay this.  I also greatly admired James Badge Dale’s work as Oswald’s brother, as he thoughtfully relays a man that loves his brother despite holding the utmost contempt for his hellish actions.  It’s strong and serenely empowered actors like Dale and Giamatti that help give PARKLAND a notable dosage of low-key gravitas that it requires. 

For as good as they are in the film, I was nonetheless left with the impression that PARKLAND would have been better served if just focused exclusively, for instance, of either Zapruder’s story, or Robert’s, or…yes…the doctor’s of Parkland itself.  The resulting film is more of an idle curiosity piece that a fully realized and explored work chronicling the behind-the-scenes events of Kennedy’s murder.  Since five decades-plus of conspiracy theories have dogged the event – not to mention that the zenith of interest in JFK’s killing arguably peaked in the mid-90’s with the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK – a film like PARKLAND certainly has its work cut out for it in terms of creatively forging ahead by crafting a uniquely different outlook on what transpired in November of 1963.   Even though the film urgently captures the absolute heartbreak of a nation and the everyday people directly involved, it fails to take all of its many parts and combine them into a meaningful whole. 

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