A seminal event in America’s recent past – the assassination of JFK – is reconstructed in writer-director Peter Landesman’s competently made but one-dimensional dramatization, using a hefty ensemble cast that includes Zac Efron, Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton and Marcia Gay Harden. Tom Hanks’ name on the credits as producer, through his company Playtone, is a key signifier of what lies in store: a momentous historical chapter reconstructed in minute, gung-ho detail but steering clear of anything too controversial in examining the event’s immediate impact on the everyday people and government officials affected.
Focusing on that fateful day in Dallas, Texas – November 22, 1963 – and the three days that followed, “Parkland” starts briskly, thanks to archive footage intercut with shots that establish the multiple characters and buildings to feature in the narrative, all helpfully screen-titled like we’re actually about to sit down for a History Channel re-enactment. Unlike Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” this is the Kennedy assassination film for people who prefer things wrapped in a tidy bow: the word ‘conspiracy’ never rears its ugly head.
In real life, Lee Harvey Oswald insisted he was just “the patsy”; here, he has one scene with his brother Robert (“The Pacific”‘s James Badge Dale) that essentially condemns him. Despite some effective sequences capturing the extreme chaos and upset in the wake of the shooting, in particular when the medical team at Parkland Memorial Hospital (Efron, Harden, Colin Hanks) are battling to save the President’s life, Landesman’s approach is too flavorless to ever fully engage.
Giamatti, as Abraham Zapruder, the local businessman who famously captured the assassination on his Super-8 camera, receives the most focus. Much time is devoted to Secret Service efforts to get his famous footage developed. The local FBI field office also learns that one of its officers (Ron Livingston) had been tracking Oswald, leading to much gnashing of teeth at his failure to predict what was about to happen. And Robert Oswald finds out what it means to be a pariah by association, while his ghastly mother (Jacki Weaver) tries to work her family’s newfound notoriety to her favor.
“Parkland” seems entirely concerned with the churning emotions that its male characters are going through. While Efron, Giamatti, Thornton, Badge Dale and various Secret Service agents get ample time to convey their individual anguish, the women are either stoic (Harden), mute (Jacqueline Kennedy and Marina Oswald) or deranged (Weaver). Even Zapruder’s negotiating with Life magazine to “take care of my family” is presented as the absolute necessity of an American hero, while Oswald’s mother, also trying to make a deal with Life, is just so much harridan trash. It unbalances a film that seems otherwise committed to making everyone sympathetic.
Landesman makes his directing debut with “Parkland” and seems to have been inspired by Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby,” right down to the earnestly banal approach (although his film is marginally better). The best thing about “Parkland” is having “The Hurt Locker” Director of Photography Barry Ackroyd on board, bringing a raw immediacy to the camerawork that conveys the chaos of those confusing days. But there are some terribly misconceived moments in the film (at one point, Jackie deposits a bit of JFK’s skull into a nurse’s hand) that leave “Parkland” a soporific exercise in tragic nostalgia.