“Back, and to the left…Back, and to the left…Back, and to the left…”

No one who’s seen Oliver Stone’s clammy paranoid epic masterpiece JFK will forget the scene where Kevin Costner’s crusading District Attorney finally gets to screen Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film of President Kennedy’s assassination to a stunned courtroom, Bad Back Jack’s head exploding like a melon dropped on the pavement, Costner repeating his mantra ad nauseam until it entered popular culture, making conspiracy buffs of us all and even going so far as to be parodied on Seinfeld.  Did Oswald act alone or was he a patsy?  Was their one shooter or three? Three shots or six?  Was it the Mafia?  The Cubans?  The CIA?  The Military/Industrial complex?  Magic bullets and triangulated crossfires…we were all suddenly armchair experts.  As the 50th anniversary of that fateful day approaches, a recent poll suggests that 59% of Americans still believe there was a conspiracy to kill the President.  Sure that’s down from 75% in 2003 but still, 59% is a heck of a lot of people who think their elected government’s lying to them.

Now forget all of that.  None of it’s important.  Broadly similar in approach to Emilio Estevez’s 2006 Bobby and drawing on Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s mammoth book Four Days In November, writer/director Peter Landesman’s Parkland deals not in conspiracy theories and supposition but in the fallout of the event – it’s the ripples in the lake’s surface that are what’s important, not the stone that caused them – relegating Kennedy and indeed Oswald to the status of bit players in their own tragedy as it reconstructs the fateful aftermath of one of the 20th century’s most iconic and horrific moments through the experiences of the ordinary people on the ground briefly touched by calamity.  It’s a bold gambit that doesn’t always work, Landesman bouncing from one character to the next, not always successfully.

Mixing vintage newsreel footage with dramatic reconstruction, Landesman puts us front and centre in Dealey Plaza on the 22nd of November 1963 right next to amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) for the assassination, the killing itself unseen, the horror simply playing out on Giamatti’s horrified face as he shoots the film that would assure his immortality.  As the ripples of the event radiate, Landesman switches to the Emergency Room at the titular Parkland Hospital where the medical team are caught on the hop and rookie doctor Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) and unflappable head nurse Doris Nelson (the excellent Marcia Gay Harden) are forced to deal with the mortally wounded President as his twitchy staff of heavily armed Secret Service agents and governments aides (among them Mark Duplass, Tom Welling and Gil Bellows) watch, panic and make plans to get the Hell out of Dodge with the President’s body as soon as possible, swearing in Veep Lyndon Johnson on an Air Force One hastily remodelled to accommodate the First Coffin.

It’s a blistering, chaotic first half hour, a dizzying, breathless adrenaline rush of nail-biting tension and doom dread that the film never again equals as the story spirals ever outwards to encompass sad sack Dallas FBI agent Ron Livingston and his realisation that while suspected assassin Oswald (Jeremy Strong) was on his watch list of potentially dangerous individuals, he never got around to interviewing him, it touches on taciturn Secret Service Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton channeling Victor Meldrew) and his attempts to get hold of Zapruder’s film and get it developed, Zapruder’s anguish and his attempts to sell the film to a respectful news supplier as America’s media launch a bidding war over it and Robert Oswald’s (James Badge Dale) pain and confusion over his brother’s actions followed by numbed grief when he’s murdered live on television, the narrative circling back to Parkland where Carrico and Nelson’s team are once again on duty and battle in vain to save the assassin’s life.

Lacking a primary focus, this section of the film feels a little flabby, each of the characters whether it’s Livingston’s FBI agent who dropped the ball, Efron’s frazzled medic or Giamatti’s tortured Zapruder are compelling in their fashion, each deserves their story to be told but in more depth.  There’s strong meat here but Landesman barely scratches the surface and lazily relies on convenient casting to provide crucial characterisation; Billy Bob Thornton playing a variation on his familiar grizzled, veteran law enforcer role, Paul Giamatti playing a nebbish, Mark Duplass and Gil Bellows as earnest government officials with only Jackie Earle Haley playing against type as the priest who gives Kennedy the Last Rites (Father Rorschach?).  Women are particularly ill-served by the film, most are never named or given a line of dialogue with only the ever-wonderful Marcia Gay Harden and a scenery chewing Jackie Weaver (as the Oswald boys bonkers mom) making much of an impression.

Perhaps the finest aspect of the film however is James Badge Dale’s performance as Robert Oswald, brother of the infamous Lee Harvey (whose guilt the film never once questions). Understated and raw, he’s quietly brilliant as the ordinary everyman forced into an impossible situation by his brother’s actions, bowed and grieving but unbroken.  The scene where he and his family bury Oswald alone except for the proto-paparazzi snapping photos, juxtaposed with Kennedy’s sumptuous state funeral, is one of the most powerful in the film and the moment where he’s forced to appeal to the newsmen for help carrying his brother’s coffin is heartbreaking.  It’s not a subtle scene, but it works mostly because James Badge Dale sells it to you.

Ultimately, there’s little real point to Parkland.  It’s a competent, workmanlike piece of cinema that’s worth seeing for its performances particularly Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden and James Badge Dale.  But it tells us nothing we didn’t already know, illuminates none of the shadows that make that day in Dallas so endlessly fascinating.

VERDICT: [rating=3]

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