Parkland isn’t the first film to address, in grand detail, the assassination on President John F. Kennedy. Our national tragedy has fed documentarians (Mel Stuart’s Oscar-nominated Four Days in November), conspiracy theorists (Oliver Stone’s JFK) and revisionist historians (Neil Burger’s Interview With the Assassin) for decades.
But Peter Landesman’s new feature is the first film, at least as far as I can remember, to actually put us on the ground in and around Dealey Plaza, standing next to the men and women who were deeply, directly affected by the murder of our country’s leader on Nov. 22, 1963. It recreates, with crime-scene precision, the minutiae of the day, tracking how elation can sour in the blink of an eye. Parkland’s an experiment in historical regeneration, but one that so accurately stages the shock of a senseless tragedy that it earns a look – particularly if you’re a completist for touchstone in U.S. history.
It shouldn’t shock anyone that Tom Hanks produces Landesman’s feature through his Playtone shingle. The two-time Oscar winner chases similar historical authenticity in visceral HBO miniseries like Band of Brothers, John Adams and The Pacific. And like those richly detailed portraits of the past, Parkland doesn’t glide over an important landmark on our nation’s timeline. It plants its flag, stops and scans the landscape, noticing elements that aren’t normally covered by a larger-scope story. Parkland is all about the details, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
Take Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) as a prime example. There likely isn’t an adult in this country who isn’t aware of the legendary Zapruder film – 26.6 seconds of grainy footage that captured Kennedy’s assassination. But does anyone know what happened to Zapruder the evening of Nov. 22, when he went home to his wife and tried to come to terms with what he just saw and, even worse, photographed? You might know that Zapruder eventually sold his footage to Life Magazine for $150,000 – but did you ever stop to think about the emotional roller coaster this innocent man rode simply by being at the right/wrong intersection of history?
Parkland often digs to find compelling human drama in these unacknowledged Dallas citizens who found themselves standing at Ground Zero as history rewrote itself around their blue-collar existences. The title refers to the hospital where Kennedy’s body was transported, and we witness an inexperienced doctor (Zac Efron) attempt CPR on the president’s corpse. We follow police men and Secret Service officers as they hunt Lee Harvey Oswald. But Landesman, again, isn’t interested in rehashing memorable scenes from a recognizable past. Instead, we’re privy to conversations rarely staged. We hear from office workers, cops, doctors and, yes, the Oswald family – his gruesome mother, Marguerite, is played with sufficient doses of acid by a solid Jacki Weaver – as they try to make sense of the senseless day.
Maybe you won’t care. If you already feel like you know everything you care to know about Nov. 22, 1963, then Parkland and its unique mission statement aren’t going to pique your interest. But as Landesman spends five minutes watching disheveled Secret Service agents attempt to load Kennedy’s coffin on board an Air Force One that isn’t prepared for a casket, I realized how fascinated I was by the areas of history this film chooses to color in. I grew more interested in the minutes and hours that pass after a tragic event, when normal citizens try to restore order from the unexpected chaos. And I was incredibly impressed by the director’s authenticity, recreating with seamless detail a period in our nation’s history that I previously thought had been systematically drained of insight.
History students will devour this exercise. But beyond the target audience, Parkland successfully reads between the lines, somehow finding new human drama in one of our country’s oldest, saddest stories.