Some stories are just too big to tell in 90 minutes; one of them is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
This is the fundamental problem with Parkland, a well-intentioned attempt to take an intimate look at the Kennedy assassination from an unusual perspective. Parkland sets out to capture the chaos and emotional turmoil of November 22, 1963 and the three days thereafter, focusing on ordinary people -- Parkland Hospital staffers, FBI agents, and so on -- in extraordinary circumstances. But the film misses its target because the target is far too large.
Parkland wastes no time bringing us into the story. The movie opens only an hour or so before Kennedy is shot, and within minutes we're in a chaotic and bloody Parkland emergency room, where young surgical resident Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) frantically tries to save Kennedy. Assisting him is nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden). Carrico's efforts to revive the gravely injured president are futile, of course, but he works on Kennedy until the other attending physicians tell him to stop.
Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), who was in the motorcade, tries to stay on top of many rapidly developing events. Sorrels meets with Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) and convinces the reluctant bystander to turn over his iconic home movie of the assassination to the authorities.
As the Secret Service begins its investigation, JFK's security team brings Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's body, and Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) safely back to Air Force One. When alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) is tracked down and caught, Dallas FBI Agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), who had been investigating Oswald's ties to the Soviet Union, realizes he let Oswald slip through his fingers. (Oswald had even sent him a threatening letter.)
Parkland also follows Oswald's brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), and mother, Marguerite (Jacki Weaver). Robert is cooperative with authorities, if slightly hostile toward his brother during a prison visit. Marguerite seems more concerned with exploiting the situation to improve her family's fortunes.
These scattered bits of the assassination story are far too complex to cover in one film, much less a film of barely 90 minutes. Parkland interweaves them as they unfold, jumping around and giving us only glimpses of each story. The movie feels rushed, with no time to explore the stories in any detail or flesh out the characters' backgrounds -- and if any historical event needs a lot of background to be understood, it's the Kennedy assassination. Viewers well versed in the assassination can fill in all the missing details, but those unfamiliar with it may find Parkland very confusing.
The Kennedy assassination is plenty dramatic; Parkland, on the other hand, is often melodramatic. The film's source material is inherently emotional, but the emotions in Parkland seem forced and unnatural. This gives the film an odd feel; if the assassination and its aftermath are so tragic and emotionally devastating, why do the characters seemingly force themselves to react to all the bad news? The problem is first-time writer/director Peter Landesman's clunky, obvious, relentlessly angry dialogue; more often than not, the characters just shout at each other rather than having nuanced conversations that would allow for natural emotional reactions.
On a positive note, Parkland's cast does it what it can to make the film work. The most fully developed character is Zapruder, and Giamatti delivers his usual critic-proof performance despite the script's many problems. Throughout the film he is bewildered at his sudden fame; he wishes he had left his camera at home that day and wants to be left alone with his stunned, almost debilitating grief. Thornton also does a fine turn as Sorrels, trying to maintain the necessary composure of a Secret Service agent while clearly upset over Kennedy's death. (On the other hand, Efron is miscast as the harried Dr. Carrico. His deer-in-the-headlights performance isn't convincing at all.)
If anything works well in Parkland, it's the intimate, thoroughly indie look and feel. Most films about the assassination are grand productions (think Oliver Stone's far-flung JFK), but Parkland never ventures beyond a few Dallas locales, often shot with hand-held cameras. It's not slick or stylish, which befits its focus on ordinary people. The Kennedys were glamorous, but any hint of cinematic glamour would be out of place in this film.
Parkland also deserves credit for its attention to historical accuracy and period detail; from the Dallas police cars to Zapruder's Bell & Howell camera to the nurses' uniforms, everything looks right. Thankfully, the film sticks to well established historical facts -- it's based on Vincent Bugliosi's no-nonsense, exhaustively detailed book Four Days in November and ignores all the assassination conspiracies. (If you don't believe Oswald acted alone, don't bother with Parkland.)
But Parkland's few bright spots can't save it. And as we approach the assassination's 50th anniversary, it's a shame this much-anticipated movie is so deeply flawed. It's a noble effort to take a fresh, from-the-trenches look at one of America's greatest tragedies, but it's a forgettable film about an unforgettable moment in our nation's history.
Austin/Texas connections: Parkland was filmed in Austin and Dallas, including Austin Studios and an old Austin State Hospital facility. Several Texas actors appear in minor roles.