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-]