Based on Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Parkland takes its title from the Dallas hospital where Kennedy was treated after being shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, and where Oswald was later treated after being shot by Jack Ruby. Written and directed by journalist Peter Landesman, Parkland takes place over the course of four tension-filled days during which those who were most touched by the assassination find their lives altered, and like Oswald’s and Kennedy’s, improbably connected.
Convincingly interspersing compelling archival footage of the motorcade, the shooting, and its immediate aftermath with a historical dramatization, Parkland begins as Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), an average citizen, films the presidential motorcade’s procession on his 8mm camera. Gunshots soon ring out, and the Secret Service, led by Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), rushes the president to Parkland Hospital, where only a quaking resident physician, Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), is on call to attend to the rapidly expiring Kennedy. Even after the more experienced Dr. Perry (Colin Hanks) arrives, there is little to be done, and a priest is called in. Parkland may have the most blood of any non-horror film in recent memory. Everyone seems to be covered in the stuff, from the nurses to the police to the coroner whom the Secret Service famously does not allow to examine to president’s body.
A distinct Cold War–era paranoia saturates the air the characters breath. As they enter the hospital, machine guns in tow, the Secret Service clear and secure the operating and treatment rooms like a battlefield, stashing now-President Johnson in a side room. Covered in blood and brains, President Kennedy and Jackie O.—theretofore the most important people on earth—are quickly sidelined as Secret Service agents, territorial FBI men, and a host of journalists, law enforcement, and various functionaries vie for fame, fortune, and power. For Zapruder, this means cashing in on his gruesome film, which every media outlet in the country is desperate to acquire. For Agent Sorrels it means regaining a sense of order and control after having “lost his man,” his phrase for having had President Kennedy die on his watch.
Parkland’s strongest performance comes from James Badge Dale who plays Robert Oswald, Jr., the quietly tenacious and well-meaning brother of Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Whereas Giamatti often seems oddly frantic as Zapruder, Dale expertly conveys the steely resolve of Oswald, who decides that abandoning his brother would betray his American family values. He is the unlikely hero of the film. Veteran actress Jacki Weaver gives a standout performance as Lee and Robert Oswald’s spitfire mother, a woman so delusional that she is convinced that Lee acted in the national interest. She is even secretly delighted with his actions: “Now, I’ll never be ordinary again!” She also angles for a book deal.
Parkland’s cinematography is competent, aside from a strange penchant for superfluous, hyperbolic zooms. Its soundtrack, however, is top-notch and sometimes tender, combining horns, strings, and electronic music.
For a film about tragedy writ large, Parkland manages to convey a deeper message of reconciliation and redemption, and it ends on a hopeful note. Parkland argues (perhaps dubiously) that Kennedy’s assassination caused unlikely alliances to be formed across the political spectrum, and that it paradoxically made the country stronger. In this era of cavalier government shutdowns, Parkland feels like a relic from simpler times.