‘Parkland’ (2013) Movie Review – Toronto Film Festival

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Parkland movie review
Paul Giamatti in Parkland
Photo: Exclusive Media

For a film that’s only 93 minutes long, Parkland feels no less than two hours. Recounting the events surrounding the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the film gets its title from Parkland Memorial Hospital where Kennedy was taken immediately after being shot. Instead of examining the event as a whole, Parkland chooses to focus on the less talked about contributors to this story; the doctors in the hospital, the family of Lee Harvey Oswald, Secret Service and others. Unfortunately, very little about it feels new or even revealing as much as I sat there saying to myself, “Yup, someone got shot and it seems only natural doctors would be the one to try and save him.” And so it goes…

The narrative introduces us to Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the man who captured what very well may be the most watched footage ever; Zac Efron and Colin Hanks play Parkland Memorial doctors while Marcia Gay Harden plays the head nurse. We meet the Oswalds, Lee Harvey (Jeremy Strong), his brother Robert (James Badge Dale) and mother (Jacki Weaver); Billy Bob Thornton as Dallas Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels; and Ron Livingston as James Hosty, an FBI agent who was actually tracking Oswald for the last year.

It’s a hefty cast of characters and a lot to juggle. Heading into the theater the idea of capturing the story from so many different angles sounded incredibly fascinating, but the end product feels cheap and amateurish. I don’t know if it’s fair, but the lack of energy and overall average nature of Parkland feels best saddled atop the shoulders of first time feature director Peter Landesman.

Landesman, best known for his controversial 2004 “New York Times” article, also wrote the screenplay, which wastes little time getting into the story. Excited to see the President rolling through the streets outside his office, Zapruder rushes outside with his camera. The motorcade turns the corner and soon all we hear is a trio of what sound like tiny clicks. Zapruder yells and we learn Kennedy has been shot.

I’m sure it was intentional, considering the film sets out to focus on characters other than Kennedy and instead everyone around him affected by the shooting, but to minimize the horror of the day in such a way seemed odd to me.

Walking into Parkland, we know the President is going to be shot. We know it’s the focal point of this film, even if the intended focus is everyone but Kennedy. Yet, his murder is still at the center of the story. So, to turn it into a few little snaps and Giamatti running around yelling, “They shot him! They shot him!” doesn’t sell the moment in the slightest. So, from the very start the film feels small. Landesman does nothing to establish the scenario, and he also fails in giving us any real sense of the amount of time passed and where everything is geographically as we blindly bounce from one location to the next.

The first ten minutes or so are spent introducing us to everyone and everywhere the story will take place, but there is no real “in-between”. We’re told Parkland Memorial is only minutes away from where Kennedy was shot, but the geography of it is unclear and even more so once we see it and it appears to be in the middle of nowhere. It’s obvious Zapruder’s office is right there in Dealey Plaza, but we have no real idea how close. Scenes merely move from one location to the next and while we know where we are at all times, the where is only a name, nothing more.

There’s a point in the film where one of the characters says something like, “What a terrible place to die.” The line would work if the city had any kind of identity. Just like the characters, the city has no identity. I get the impression I’m watching a well-researched film, but the audience isn’t privy to anything Landesman learned while putting the story together.

Parkland wants to focus on what the official synopsis refers to as “unexceptional people fighting for survival and reaching for heroism in an exceptional time”. However, the people are never the focus because we don’t know them, we only know them by their occupation. Efron’s character isn’t Dr. Jim Carrico, he’s just a doctor. Thornton is a Secret Service Agent, not Forrest Sorrels and so on. Some characters, fortunately, do stand out and make sure the film isn’t a total disaster.

James Badge Dale as Oswald’s brother and Jacki Weaver as his mother bring the most to any of the characters actually given enough time to be considered characters. The Oswald family alone would have made a better film. The mystery of Oswald being the alleged assassin, the brother who still believes his sibling did it and the strange mother that insists he was an American spy. If Oliver Stone were to ever want to return to JFK territory a LHO feature is waiting in the wings.

Also, in terms of emotional resonance and memorable moments, I have to give respect to the treatment of Jackie Onassis’ character here. The shock she experienced is felt and is easily the best the film has to offer in terms of subtlety. Just as much as the film could have focused on the Oswalds alone, with some reshoots it actually could have been all about Jackie as the majority of the characters feel like nothing more than overpaid extras anyway.

Overall, there are small nuggets of fascination here, but in the end this is a “ho hummer”. The immediacy of the film is lost when the decision is made to keep the assassination off screen and it’s never able to get back on track.