'Parkland' is no typical Kennedy film

By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

November 21, 2013


WAUKESHA - “‘Parkland,’” a synopsis states in part, “weaves together the chaotic events following the tragedy (of John F. Kennedy’s assassination) from perspectives as diverse as the young doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital, who worked feverishly through the hours after the shooting; the Dallas chief of the Secret Service; Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother; the FBI agent who nearly had the gunman within his grasp; the unwitting cameraman who captured the assassination; and Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy as president.”

The foregoing was penned for the book cover of Vincent Bugliosi’s paperback “Parkland,” but it’s also an apt summation of the movie by the same name. (Following film festival screenings outside the country, “Parkland,” co-produced by Tom Hanks, played in U.S. theaters beginning Oct. 4 and more recently was released on DVD.) The book represents but a portion of Bugliosi’s 2007 “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” A bit more about the author, and quite a bit more about the “Parkland” book, can be found in a sidebar story, while the remainder of this story will deal with the Peter Landesman-directed movie.

Screenwriter and first-time director Landesman’s “Parkland” utilizes the mass protagonist system more prevalent in novels and plays: a lot of co-stars with similar-sized roles, as opposed to one or two performers dominating the action. As far as actor counterparts to real-life figures mentioned above, “Parkland’s” biggest names are Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron and Marcia Gay Harden. Respectively, they play Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels, shutterbug Abraham Zapruder, surgery resident Dr. Jim Carrico and nurse Doris Nelson.

Thornton is especially impressive. His Secret Service honcho exudes empathy and politeness, yet can become irate and imperious - and Thornton is totally credible in conveying all of the above. “Parkland’s” acting performances, in general, are understated; one exception is Jacki Weaver’s Marguerite Oswald, mother of JFK’s assassin. The low-key prevalence seems appropriate in a film with a strong documentary feel (fueled to some extent by the inclusion of actual TV news footage from Nov. 22 through Nov. 25, 1963).

Famous characters whose roles are minuscule here and folks left out of the film entirely make “Parkland” an unusual Kennedy movie. In a typical film about America’s 35th president, whether assassination-focused or not, actors portray the president’s father, mother and attorney general brother. But Joe, Rose and Robert Kennedy are nowhere to be found in Landesman’s film. The actor who plays JFK - Brett Stimely, who’s been a Kennedy alter ego in several films - says nothing in this one. Too, the actor (Sean McGraw) who plays Kennedy’s successor is hardly heard, although when he is, he does sound uncannily like Lyndon Johnson. LBJ is seldom on camera, however; when glimpsed, he’s often partly obscured by a swarm of Secret Service operatives perhaps overcompensating for the disaster in Dealey Plaza. The actress cast as Jacqueline Kennedy (Kat Steffens) does much more grieving than speaking; Lee Harvey Oswald has an even tinier part; and neither Jack Ruby nor Officer J.D. Tippit is represented.

In short, JFK’s close relatives and the principals of interrelated murders during  that awful Dallas weekend are less important in this Kennedy picture than several individuals the president never knew and probably never even saw. And as one is introduced to tangential but somehow fascinating figures such as Lee Oswald’s  brother  Robert (James Badge Dale) - an apparently resolute and upright  man tragically victimized by genetics - that seems altogether appropriate.

Evoking for many a place consigned long ago to the vague recesses of memory, “Parkland” is, arguably, a most appropriate title for this most unusual of Kennedy movies.