Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Parkland

By Freda Cooper 20.11.2013 1

Parkland, UK Rating: 15

This Friday, 22nd November, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. It's hard not to be aware of it in the UK, with the TV and radio schedules full of commemorative programmes. It's curious, then, that Parkland, the latest big screen version of the events in Dallas, opens on the same day in the UK, but not in the USA. It actually opened over there in early October, with the DVD hitting the shelves a couple of weeks ago. It seems the Americans haven't exactly taken it to their hearts.

Peter Landesman's film follows the events of that day, and the three subsequent ones, by focusing on ordinary people who suddenly found themselves in the middle of extraordinary circumstances. The trauma team at Parkland Hospital - who tried to save the President's life - tailor, Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who took what has become the most famous home movie footage of all time, and the elder brother of the accused, are among them.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Parkland


"This wasn't supposed to happen!" shouts Dallas security chief Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton). He's right - it wasn't, and it begs the same question of the film…

There have been plenty of documentaries on the subject, most recently one on TV last week that took much the same approach of focussing on the ordinary people caught up in the day. Landesman has chosen to make a drama instead, but it's one that is episodic, disconnected and without a reason for being made. It doesn't shed new light on the assassination, nor does it delve into the conspiracy theories á la JFK. It's based on Vincent Bugliosi's book, Five Days in November, which is a minute-by-minute account of what happened. Bugliosi is also co-scriptwriter on the film, so it has to be assumed that he's following the facts in his own book, but who knows for certain that all of them are accurate?

Some are well known, yet could appear so outlandish as to be untrue. When Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, he was rushed to Parkland Hospital and treated by the same doctors that tried to save the President. Also, both Kennedy and Oswald were buried on the same day. However, if it weren't that both facts are known to be true, they would be dismissed as clichéd.


 

This is not a Rashomon-style telling of that day in Dallas either. This is not being seen through the eyes of the people concerned, but seeing their stories as they relate to the assassination. The producers of the film describe Parkland as interweaving the stories of the people involved, which implies a connection between them. There is little of that. Abraham Zapruder is forced by security chief Sorrels to have his film footage developed, and Lee Oswald's older brother, Robert (James Badge Gale, with the best performance in the film), has to cope with their delusional mother and visit his brother in prison. Apart from that, they are all kept separate, which gives the film a lumpy, sometimes lurching, feel.

There are some elements of the film that do ring true. All the chaos, anger and moments of panic among the President's staff from the moment of the shooting have an authentic feel, as does the way they all try to crowd into the trauma room like a flock of mesmerised sheep as the medics desperately fight for Kennedy's life.

There's an element of black comedy when the coffin is loaded onto Air Force One. It's a garish bronze colour, one of the handles falls off, and the struggle to get it up the stairs and into the plane is undignified to the point of being farcical. However, like Sorrels said, this wasn't supposed to happen, and nobody had planned for it.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Parkland


If Parkland shows viewers anything new, it's the story of Robert Oswald, the most ordinary of men who, through no fault of his own, finds himself not only in the spotlight but on the receiving end of much of the hatred directed at his younger brother. James Badge Dale gives him a quiet dignity in an unfussy performance that elicits compassion, especially when he has to ask for help to remove his brother's coffin from the hearse so that it can be buried.  No pallbearers, no church service and a borrowed grave. As the credits roll, it is learned that of all the main characters, he's the only one still alive - and he's continued to live in Dallas, despite being forcefully advised at the time of the assassination that he should get out of town.

5/10
Rated 5 out of 10

Average

Parkland is a disappointment. It has a strong cast of character actors - alongside Thornton and Giamatti, there's Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Jackie Earle Haley - but only Giamatti really gets the chance to show us something close to a fully rounded character. They are let down by an uneven film that often feels like it's just going through the motions. Last week's TV documentary did it so much better.

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Sounds like quite the disappointment...

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