Journalist-turned-filmmaker Peter Landesman may bring nothing particularly new to the table as concerns the assassination of JFK with his first movie, Parkland, but the sheer sense of urgency, tragedy and confusion surrounding that world-changing assassination has never been so compellingly presented. Named for the hospital Kennedy (Brett Stimely in his fourth turn as JFK) and later Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) were taken to, Parkland is one of the leanest and most fast-paced films in recent memory. It’s also one of the few films I’ve seen use a TV news, hand-held approach that works (in part because it doesn’t feel artificially shaky). Here, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick, instead conveying the movie’s You-Are-There ethos.
I’ve heard that the film isn’t political enough, isn’t decisive enough, isn’t focused enough — all criticism that seems to completely miss the point of the film. The intent is clearly a visceral depiction of the events that took place over a four-day period in all its chaos, shock and heartbreak. It attempts to place you in that time — in that period before all this could be processed, and certainly before we started questioning what we were told. It gives us Nov. 22-25 as it was in 1963, not with 50 years of debate and theories and revelations factored in. Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) it ain’t. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie quite like it. Attempts to pigeonhole it with Emilio Estevez’s underrated Bobby (2006) don’t really work. Both are about the assassination of a Kennedy and both have big-name casts in small roles, but the films are not alike in pace, tone or point.
Although packed with famous names, there are no star parts in Parkland. We probably see more of Zac Efron as Jim Carrico, the ER doctor who happened to be on duty when both Kennedy and Oswald were brought in, than most people. There are, however, star turns from Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder and James Badge Dale as Robert Edward Lee Oswald. Most of the big and biggish names — Marcia Gay Harden, Mark Duplass, Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Hanks, Jacki Weaver — have fleeting moments of note, but are generally part of a larger tapestry. (Jacki Weaver has a couple of notable moments as the clearly insane Marguerite Oswald, who sees her son’s notoriety as a springboard to fame.) If there are an awful lot of names packed into this 90-minute movie, it may also be fairly said that there’s an equal amount of incident for them to enact.
What is surprising is that the film never feels rushed. In fact, it manages to slow down on occasion when it needs to — notably, the strangely moving burial of Lee Harvey Oswald. I don’t know that I’m left with a sense that Peter Landesman is a filmmaker to watch. This feels like a very specific project to which he was uniquely suited. I think the movie’s newsreel style and its headlong pacing is probably limited, but I’d give him the benefit of the doubt on a second film. This one may fall a bit shy of greatness, but it’s the most purely exciting filmmaking I’ve seen in a while — and I very much recommend it. Rated PG-13 for bloody sequences of ER procedures, violent images, language and smoking throughout.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas