After opening in the London Film Festival, Parkland’s release was delayed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination, and presumably thus cash in on the notoriety and nostalgia. Though of course nostalgia is the wrong word, because we are talking about an audience that doesn’t remember the event, doesn’t remember the time, and thinks that Kennedy was version of Don Draper. Parkland plays with this fondness for an idea of early 60s glamour, all Rat Pack skinny ties and Jackie pill-box hats and Chanel. But in its rather limited definition of who the real Mad Men are, it lets its audience down. In fact, if you kept as scorecard of Parkland you’d quickly realise the guys in the Mad Men threads are the good guys.
The good news is that although the credits say it is based on Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, his massive redo of Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, the film doesn’t subject us to a massive prosecuting brief for the Warren Report. It does, however, retreat to the Warren conclusions, that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone crazed assassin, and that assumption permeates everything that follows. Apparently, this was originally intended as a Band Of Brothers style mini-series, but it must have been evident that examining the assassination itself would quickly become far too tendentious, and that a Band of Conspirators scenario has already been done by Oliver Stone.
Produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone, what Parkland tries to be is a story about the personal lives are the crucible of the assassination and how the event focused its stresses on them, like a more serious version of Bobby. Hanks is, in some sense, Hollywood’s American Everyman, heir to Jimmy Stewart perhaps, although there has always been an element of Forrest Gump’s idiot savant or not so savant in that image. Parkland’s cross-section of American everymen hold up well under fire, as it were, but where I find the film most pernicious is in its Gumpish assertion of not only respect for, but faith in, authority. The Secret Service, the FBI, everybody except perhaps the Dallas Police who threaten Oswald’s brother Robert, are figures of huge competence. And I even got the feeling we were supposed to admire the red-blooded thirst for revenge by these square-jawed Ray Ban-wearing Texans. Billy Bob Thornton even gets a speech about the SS never having lost a president, as if oblivious to the one just lost on his watch. Instead, we see the SS jumping out of their motorcade cars at the hospital setting up a cordon armed with their Armalite rifles (one of which, according to one popular assassination theory, actually fired the fatal head shot). I’ve looked at every photo I can find, news film footage, and read recollections, and I can see no evidence this cordon ever existed. But what the visuals do is create an image of the fighters of terrorists keeping the public safe, drawing a quick line between Oswald as assassin and terrorism, and absolving authority of blame.
Similarly, Oswald himself is portrayed as both cocky and kooky, which is not that far off-base, but also dangerous (in fact, Jeremy Strong could just as easily be playing Snowden journalist Glenn Greenwald). That is enough to convince his brother (a tremendous performance by James Badge Dale) of his guilt, and if Oswald’s own brother believes him guilty, what’s left for the rest of us to decide? Jacki Weaver as their mother, , seems to be channelling her inner Joan Allen without huge success; Mrs. Oswald was a strange woman who did warm to the spotlight, but she was also shrewd enough to sense that there was more going on behind the scenes with her son. But her obvious delusion in the film negates her assertion that Lee was some kind of government agent.
Which he more than likely was—either when he ‘defected’ to Russia and/or came back. It is highly likely that Oswald was acting as an informant for somebody—the rumour at the time, that it was the FBI, has never been refuted convincingly, which puts Parkland’s approach to the whole agent James Hosty (well played in this light by Ron Livingstone, the closest to Don Draper Parkland actually gets) story in a different light. Of course embarrassment was the reason for many of the cover-ups around the assassination investigations, and cover-up can begin to look like conspiracy, but the destruction of Hosty’s memo, and other missing files higher up the food change quite likely represent more than mere embarrassment.
Where Parkland falls down worst, however, is at the hospital itself. Zac Efron is our Forrest Gump, MD, driven to exhaustion and beyond by the pressure of working on the president, with only nurse Marcia Gay Harden for support. More importantly, we never see doctors describing JFK’s throat wound as a wound of entry (the tracheotomy performed immediately destroyed that evidence), we never see them repeatedly identifying the fatal wound’s being above and to the front of the right ear, not in the right rear of the head. When the Secret Service steal the body from the Dallas coroner before he can perform an autopsy, we are presented with forthright professionals protecting a corpse from further terrorism. We never learn of the farcical autopsy conducted at a military hospital. Most puzzling of all, we never see Jack Ruby, who will soon be the star of his own murder, and his on live television, at Parkland, where he most definitely was. Later he would pop up at Police HQ, and even interject a helpful correction about Oswald’s background as a commie radical into one of the press conferences.
Instead of Jack Ruby, we get Abraham Zapruder, as played by Paul Giamatti, who understandable fear at having the best record of the killing, soon gets turned into a role as a sort of nascent film producer, selling the rights to Life Magazine (where stills would be printed in the wrong order to make it look as if the fatal shot drove Kennedy’s head backwards). What is amazing is the way the Secret Service and FBI not only defer to Zapruder and his property, but actually do what they promise they will do, and give him back a copy of the film. We’ve come a long way from that in 50 years.
I suppose that when Parkland ends, in Gump or Private Ryan fashion, with the moral uplift of Walter Cronkite’s encomium to tolerance and understanding, it will not ring hollow in the light of the five decades that followed. But Parkland’s faith in our institutions, and blind acceptance of the power of the long crazed madman, may suit our post 9/11 America, but it rings hugely false for anyone with a memory.
This essay appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets