As a blood-spattered, commemorative 50th-anniversary docudrama of the JFK assassination, Parkland’s overt politics are minimal, aside from defaulting to the myth of John F. Kennedy as a martyr for…something. The first of many losses of “innocence” for America in the latter part of the 20th century, the murder is measured by first-time writer-director Peter Landesman according to the trauma it visits upon a disparate group of Dallas residents, mostly professional white men, over four days that November. The shooting and its immediate aftermath are dispensed with in 20 minutes of frenetic shaky-cam action, with clothier Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) taking history’s most analyzed 8mm film yards from the motorcade, and the staff of the title’s hospital (resident Zac Efron, nurse Marcia Gay Harden) anxiously attending to the dying president, arms steeped in gore that’s also spread on the white shirts of the Secret Service agents crowding into the ER. (The dazed first lady, after shuffling in with a retrieved portion of her husband’s brain, can only weep and slip her wedding ring onto his finger.)
As the new chief executive and his coterie scramble back to Washington, fearing a burgeoning coup, Landesman dramatizes historical trivia (a legalistic scrum over the presidential coffin, the last-minute unbolting of Air Force One seats so the body doesn’t have to fly in the cargo hold), but abandons the fabled and powerful as soon as they board the plane. As he lurches between his intercutting plots, it’s hard to discern an overarching theme, any more than the hopeless effort to piece Kennedy’s head together seems like anything but distasteful rubbernecking. A local F.B.I. man (Ron Livingston) is called on the carpet for having ignored a threatening letter from the accused assassin, and Zapruder finds his home movie at the center of a media bidding frenzy, as it’s swiftly developed at the insistence of the Secret Service’s veteran Dallas chief (Billy Bob Thornton, who wears the man’s devastation persuasively). But the only thread that rises with some consistency above polished “You Are There” reenactment is the absurdist, occasionally blackly comic saga of office worker Robert Oswald, acted rivetingly between the lines by James Badge Dale. He copes with the arrest of his brother Lee as the killer, and the prim, possibly deranged defenses offered by their mother (Jacki Weaver, savoring the woman’s red-meat eccentricity and dialogue like “I am responsible for two presidents” at least as much as the audience). Given the unlikely prospect that Don DeLillo’s novel Libra will ever be adapted by Hollywood, it’s perversely satisfying to see a JFK-related film try the tack of approaching this exhaustively trod territory from the Oswalds’ perspective.
Aside from scenes where Dale’s prosaic, put-upon white sheep of the family dominates quietly, Parkland carries an aura of momentousness that is unearned by the film’s lack of interest in either Kennedy’s presidency, as opposed to his charm and posthumous veneration, or how his killing did and didn’t change the nation. Certainly there’s nothing like a representative of Malcolm X’s viewpoint that an often ruthless head of state being ruthlessly disposed of was a case of “chickens coming home to roost”; upon selling his film to Life magazine, Zapruder insists that the frames of the kill shot not be published, to honor the “very dignified man” that Kennedy was. Landesman doesn’t explicitly endorse this appraisal, but as a former journalist, he appears to embrace the contemporaneous piety of Walter Cronkite’s hope that the president “did not die in vain” by closing his frustratingly vague, unmoored-from-analysis pageant with it.