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Venice Review: JFK Drama ‘Parkland’ Starring Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton & Jacki Weaver

Venice Review: JFK Drama 'Parkland' Starring Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton & Jacki Weaver

Ever since “PT 109,” which detailed his WWII war record and was released while he was still in office, President John F. Kennedy has been catnip to Hollywood. After all, he was good looking, charismatic, had a dark secret life of womanising, among other things, and of course, was assassinated three years into his presidency—an event that inspires debate and conspiracy theories to this day. He’s been the subject of great films (Oliver Stone‘s “JFK“) and bad ones (recent miniseries “The Kennedys“), and been played by everyone from Cliff Robertson to James Marsden (in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler“). This November marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dealey Plaza, and as such, it was inevitable that there’d be some kind of film to mark the occasion. We just wish it wasn’t as terrible as “Parkland,” which premieres (in competition, inexplicably) at the Venice Film Festival today.

Produced by Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton (Kevin Bacon and Gary Sinise are presumably feeling a bit left out of the “Apollo 13” reunion), and marking the feature directorial debut of journalist and novelist Peter Landesman, the film sets out to tell the story of the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and the few days that followed, through the eyes of the ordinary people whose lives it impacted. There’s the staff of Parkland Hospital, most notably young resident Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) and their boss Malcolm Perry (Colin Hanks). There’s Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the man who took the famous Super 8 film that captures the shooting in full. There’s the Secret Service detail struggling to come to terms with the first presidential death in their existence, led by Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) and also including Roy Kellerman (Tom Welling of “Smallville“). There are the local FBI, in particular, agents James Hostby (Ron Livingston) and Gordon Shanklin (David Harbour), who realize too late that they let Lee Harvey Oswald slip through their fingers. And there’s Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), who discovers that his troubled brother is the man who killed the leader of the free world.

Landesman plays the drama out in a vaguely Paul Greengrass-ish docu-drama style, down to borrowing the “United 93” helmer’s DOP, Barry Ackroyd. But things feel malformed from the off, which begins with a lot of people saying a lot of portentous things, and continues to the assassination itself, which is more than underwhelming, in part because of what seems to be a pretty tight budget—Landesman watches Giamatti as he films the shooting, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone else in Dealey Plaza except him.

The rest of the film feels, if anything, even more misjudged. There’s a pleasing egalitarianism to the film’s history-through-the-eyes-of-the-ordinary-man concept, but the script rarely makes the case that their versions are compelling enough to warrant a film. Jackie Kennedy makes a very brief, wordless appearance (played by an actress who somehow looks even younger than Minka Kelly in ‘The Butler’), but even those snippets make you long for a more dramatically potent take told through her eyes.

But then, it may just be down to the execution. Landesman’s script is full of cringeworthy lines (“It’s time to say goodbye,” Jackie is told shortly after she starts to say goodbye to her husband), and the direction isn’t much more competent. The editing in particular is slack—making a theoretically brisk 90-minute runtime feel much longer—and sometimes confusing, as with a cut that makes it seem that Mark Duplass‘ secret service agent is in two rooms almost simultaneously. It’s unintentionally funny, but not as much as the scene where the Secret Service struggle to get JFK’s coffin round a tight corner on Air Force One.

And given how many strong actors there are in the cast, it’s disappointing how weak their performances are. If they’re not wasted entirely (Marcia Gay Harden and Jackie Earle Haley, as a priest, are given almost nothing to do), they’re either chewing the scenery (as is the case with Giamatti and Thornton) or out of their depth. Note for the future: if you’re a filmmaker and are considering giving some of your heaviest dramatic lifting to the guy who played Superman on TV, don’t. There is one notable exception, and that’s James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother. For the fifth time in twelve months (following “Flight,” “Iron Man 3,” “World War Z” and “The Lone Ranger“), the actor feels like he’s in a different, and much better, movie than the one around him. As Robert Oswald, he underplays while everyone swings for the fences, neatly and efficiently capturing brotherly love, ordinary dignity and irrational guilt.

His stuff is by far the best thing in the film, and it would be tempting to suggest that a version of the film focusing solely on the Oswald family might be fairly effective, were it not for the normally reliable Jacki Weaver, who seems to have been told to play Oswald’s batshit crazy mother as comic relief. So ultimately, James Badge Dale can’t salvage the film that we like to think was conceived with good intentions, but comes across on screen as a cheap cash-in. [D-]

Browse through all our coverage of the 2013 Venice Film Festival to date by clicking here. 

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Jon Robert Wayne

This could have been such a better movie. I read V. Bugliosi's book from which the book was drawn from and, like the filmmakers, was fascinated by the stories of the ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances on that terrible day fifty years ago. Regarding the 'coffin scene', the funeral director, obviously unaware of the practical needs of transporting the president's body, was more concerned about providing his very best of coffins for the president – according to Bugliosi, it weight several hundred pounds – hence the unintentionally funny scene on air force one – this just being one of many embarrassing episodes as it made its way to Bethesda hospital.

Victoria Thompson

Excellent Movie. Realistic, Factual, Intense, Committed, Suspense-filled, Secret-unfolding, Action Packed, the right actor for each role with superb continuity, extreme respect for the President, all in all a very emotionally evoking film that made me feel as if I were there with views into private lives not previously shared. Admiral Burkley portrayed by Gary Clarke was an unexpectedly important role.

Sue Grace

Dr. Carrico was a licensed second-year resident when he treated President Kennedy. He was not present when Oswald was brought in. Get your facts straight!

mark crane

The most important clue to the JFK assassination can be found by searching Youtube for Folksteady.


Hard to believe that a movie with this pedigree behind and in front of the camera is actually as bad as this "reviewer" says (the tell-tale giveaway? Lyttleton makes the supremely amateurish mistake of saying at the end that another movie (about the Oswalds) should have been made instead).

Somehow I get the feeling this column was written by someone who was brought up on Transformer and Die Hard movies, so a film such as this is beyond their comprehension.

Alan B

James Badge Dale is a god. End of.


Giamatti pretty much ruins anything he is in. He is up there with Eckhart and Wright as the worst over-actors working today.


You are absolutely right. The Dealey Plaza scene was shot, in part, in 1 day in Dallas with only Giamatti. The rest was shot in Austin.


Hoped this would be close in quality to JFK. Unfortunately it appears to be far closer to the recent debacle that was Bobby.


What may be just as interesting as the conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination is the backstory of the hospital where JFK died, Parkland Memorial Hospital. Parkland is not only the place where the President died, but also where his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died and where Oswald's assassin, Jack Ruby, died.

Just consider that a doctor resident-in-training, Dr. James Carrico, was the first care taker to receive both JFK and Oswald at Parkland while no licensed doctor was around. That's what you get when trainees are there to do the work of licensed doctors.

Parkland has come under intense fire from government health care regulators recently and are on 7 straight years of federal probation for patient care lapses and billing fraud.

You can read about the back story about Parkland on the website, "The Parkland Orgy of Death."


The Hollywood Reporter's review looks pretty good though,it's like you're not watching the same film…


My classmate's ex-wife makes says this movie sucks too unfortunately. And she runs a Zac fansite in Botswana.


Yes. James Badge Dale deserves better movie.


Wow. I wasn't expecting greatness (I got my first hint of trouble when I saw the trailer with Marcia Gay Harden telling Zac Efron that he was in charge – or something to that effect. Seriously? Zac Efron?), but I will, of course, have to see this for myself. Wasting a cast and a premise this good should be a crime.

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