‘Parkland’: Still haunted

October 3, 2013


Fifty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “Parkland” still has the power to hit you like a fast-moving bus.

A recreation of Nov. 22, 1963, as seen through the eyes of people who were directly involved, Peter Landesman’s film has the immediacy of a documentary, though it is a dramatization with actors. It takes you places and puts you into the middle of scenes that you’ve only heard or read about. It reminds you of just what a personal loss Kennedy’s assassination felt like – not only to his immediate circle but to people who only knew him through headlines and television.

It also explores the impact on the people who had a hands-on role in the events immediately following his shooting. They include the emergency room doctors who tried to save Kennedy, the Secret Service men tasked with protecting him, Abraham Zapruder (a bystander who happened to be shooting home movies and captured the assassination on film), and Bob Oswald, brother of Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin.

Kennedy’s killing is one of those historic moments – like 9/11 – that seemingly touched everyone. No one who was alive and old enough to register the tragedy will forget where they were when they heard the news. Nor will they forget that long weekend of mourning, culminating in Kennedy’s funeral.

But Landesman’s film brings back details and provides an inside look at the events as experienced by the people who were right there. If it was a shock to be a student in a classroom whose school day was interrupted by the bulletin that the president had been shot, it was that much more unnerving to be the doctor on call at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital emergency room, where Kennedy was brought.

The doctor in question is a young resident named Jim Carrico, played by Zac Efron. Earnest, dedicated and seemingly unprepared for the task that suddenly befell him, he finds himself scrambling to save the fatally wounded JFK. Efron is a surprisingly affecting actor who conveys the blend of horror, shock, sadness and dedication as he fruitlessly works to staunch the bleeding and repair the irreparable damage of Oswald’s bullets.

It is unnerving to see the recreation of the emergency operating room and the blood and the violence of Kennedy’s wounds. While we’re used to seeing this sort of recreated carnage on TV medical shows and in movies, the notion of seeing Kennedy’s injuries is hard to take, even though you know it’s fake blood and prosthetics. It feels that real.

Paul Giamatti brings a vigor and vitality to Zapruder, a businessman excited at the chance to see – and film – the president’s visit to Dallas. His surprise and horror at what he’s seen through his viewfinder (and captured on his film) is palpable, as though he himself has been sucker-punched by history.

The most intriguing character is Bob Oswald (James Badge Dale), who is at his office when the news comes across. The revelation that the suspect in the shooting is his brother – already considered an oddball because of his trip to Russia and his marriage to a Russian woman – turns Oswald himself into a pariah, under suspicion simply by accident of birth. He must cope not only with his brother’s arrest but his subsequent murder – on national TV, no less – by Jack Ruby. He also must deal with his strange mother Marguerite (Jackie Weaver), who immediately begins spouting conspiracy theories about her son.

There are several more characters who are deftly sketched, including FBI agent played by Ron Livingston and a Secret Service chief played by Billy Bob Thornton. We get a glimpse of the internal squabbling – Who was at fault? Who will be blamed? – that takes on added urgency in these performances.

“Parkland” is powerful and saddening, a nightmare moment brought back to life by skilled filmmakers. It is a moment that changed our country – and our world – and this film reminds us just how great a loss we suffered.

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