Parkland: Venice Review

Zac Efron
This fresh look at the Kennedy assassination benefits from a collection of splendid performances.

Journalist-turned-director Peter Landesman revisits the JFK assassination through the eyes of a dozen people close to the action in Dallas in November 1963.

Designed in part to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, the ensemble movie Parkland offers a fresh and affecting slant on that traumatic slice of history. Filled with sharp details that will be eye-opening to most viewers, the film is exceptionally well made, with a fine cast making the most of small but telling roles. Good reviews and Tom Hanks’ name on the production credits are likely to generate solid box office returns for this October release following festival screenings.

The title comes from Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where both President John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were rushed after being shot. Director Peter Landesman, a former journalist making his directorial debut, keeps his camera close to the participants and conveys a startling sense of immediacy. The approach is very different from that taken by Emilio Estevez in Bobby, which became more of a soap opera about several people whose lives converged at the time of the Robert Kennedy assassination. Here the approach is more authentically journalistic, with only a few snippets about the personal lives of the participants.

The bloody hospital scenes are graphic and sometimes painful to watch, but the sense of being right in the middle of the chaos is vividly caught. Zac Efron and Colin Hanks play the residents tending to the President, and Marcia Gay Harden is the head nurse. They convey the right note of numbed shock, along with a sense of professionalism—people doing their best during an unprecedented national emergency.

We also follow the reactions of the Secret Service agents and the FBI.  Billy Bob Thornton, Ron Livingston, and David Harbour shine in these roles. Livingston has the key role of FBI agent James Hosty, who was actually compiling a file on Oswald and is ordered to destroy it in order to save the Bureau from embarrassment. The film provides several other examples of the suppression of evidence, which later fed the paranoid fantasies of conspiracy mongers. In the hospital, local authorities fight to do an autopsy on the President, but federal authorities nix that idea in their desire to get the body back to Washington as quickly as possible.

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Another questionable decision is taken with regard to the famous 8 millimeter footage shot by amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti). As reporters besiege Zapruder for rights to the footage, he meets with an editor of Life magazine and agrees to sell the footage to him on the condition that the most graphic frames are edited out. The editor tries to convince him that the omission will stir too many unanswered questions, but Zapruder persists out of deference to the President whom he revered. Giamatti gives one of the two strongest performances in the film; the disorientation he conveys is remarkably raw.

The other standout performance is given by James Badge Dale as the assassin’s brother. Perhaps the most revealing sections deal with the family of Lee Harvey Oswald. Landesman made a surprising but smart decision to focus a good deal of attention on Oswald’s brother Robert. There has probably never been another film that provides such an incisive portrayal of the impact of a horrendous crime on the killer’s family. Dale captures the mixture of shame and grief that characterized Robert’s stunned reaction, and one jailhouse scene between the brothers (with Jeremy Strong well cast as Lee Oswald) has just the right degree of tension.

Another emotional highlight is the funeral of Oswald, in which Robert has to plead with the photographers and reporters present to help in moving the coffin, since no one else would agree to act as pallbearers. This lonely funeral, intercut with national mourning for the President, manages to be deeply poignant without diminishing the larger tragedy.

The one questionable performance is given by Jacki Weaver as Oswald’s mother, a raging celebrity hound who believes her son was framed but also relishes the media attention she is sure to receive. “I will never be ordinary again,” she declares rapturously. Granted that Marguerite Oswald may have been something of an egomaniac or just a plain maniac, Weaver gives a performance that verges a little too close to caricature.

But that's the only false note. The film is otherwise engrossing, quietly revelatory, and often profoundly moving as it retells a story we only thought we knew. The project began with strong source material in Vincent Bugliosi’s bestselling book, Four Days in November, but Landesman does an expert job of condensing and highlighting the pertinent moments.

Editors Leo Trombetta and Mark Czyzewski help to balance the multiple story strands and keep the 93-minute drama hurtling forward. The haunting, melancholy music by James Newton Howard underscores the terrible sense of loss without ever seeming obtrusive. The film wisely doesn’t wade into the ongoing controversy over whether Oswald acted alone. Instead it honors a dozen ordinary people who inadvertently found themselves swept up into history.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition; also in Toronto festival)

Opens:  Friday, Oct. 4 (Exclusive Media).

Production: The American Film Company, Playtone Productions.

Cast:  James Badge Dale, Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Colin Hanks, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, Ron Livingston, David Harbour, Jeremy Strong, Jackie Earle Haley, Tom Welling.

Director-screenwriter:  Peter Landesman.

Based on the book by: Vincent Bugliosi.

Producers:  Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Bill Paxton, Nigel Sinclair, Matt Jackson.

Executive producers:  Steven Shareshian, Joe Ricketts, Ginger Sledge, Guy East, Brian Falk, Tobin Armbrust.

Director of photography:  Barry Ackroyd.

Production designer:  Bruce Curtis.

Music:  James Newton Howard.

Costume designer:  Kari Perkins.

Editors:  Leo Trombetta, Mark Czyzewski.

No rating, 93 minutes.