Posted October 4, 2013 by Daniel Hodgson in
Parkland chronicles the day that J.F.K. was assassinated, and the chaos of the three days that followed. The trouble with the film, though, is that it is just that; a chronicle of events rather than a story about characters.
Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, who happened to catch the assassination on his 8mm camera. Zapruder runs into Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), a special agent with the Secret Service, who demands that he turn over his footage as evidence. Once the film is developed and returned to him, Zapruder finds himself the custodian of a critical moment in history, trying to protect J.F.K.’s dignity while being hounded by journalists across the country for the footage.
James Badge Dale portrays Robert Edward Lee Oswald, Jr., a man persecuted because he shares the same last name as his brother, Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong). He’s told by a sheriff that he should change his name and move far, far away because of his brother’s actions. A meeting in jail between the brothers gives no answers to too many questions. His mother, Marguerite Oswald (Jacki Weaver), is possessed of a similar madness that possessed her son, who is himself murdered before he could stand trial. As a nation buries its leader, Robert must ask his protection detail for help to bury his brother’s body.
Other scenes, plot threads, and story fragments include: a standoff between the Dallas coroner and the Secret Service, who want to remove J.F.K.’s body when it’s in local jurisdiction; the handling of the coffin aboard Air Force One; and how James P. Hosty (Ron Livingston), an F.B.I. agent, had received threatening letters from Oswald that would have put Oswald in jail, possibly preventing the assassination from having happened.
None of which add up to a story. Parkland is about a senseless act and the chaos that followed for those three days, all of which is antithetical to what makes a story a story. A story is structured, and layered with meaning. It begins, builds to a climax, and resolves itself. It has focus, with a clear idea of whom and what it is about. Parkland reaches its peak within the first five minutes with the assassination, and everything that follows is aftermath. Having reached its climax, there’s nothing at stake to leave the fates of its characters hanging in the balance, and nothing left to do but wrap-up a story that’s over moments after it’s begun.
The performers are in fine form, particularly a fiery Billy Bob Thorton as Agent Sorrels. The film also features Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Mark Duplass, and Jackie Earle Haley, each of whom portray real-life persons. However, Parkland is stretched out across so many characters that we don’t get to know any of them particularly well. The film certainly has a number of stars and capable performers, but what it needs is a hero, singular, someone to identify with and follow on an emotional journey.
Thus, Parkland is a film about a dozen characters, who are never more than strangers to the audience, going through a laundry list of historical aftershocks. That the film is an adaptation (of the novel Four Days in November) does not excuse its writer/director Peter Landesman from his obligation as a storyteller to find meaning and order from the tangled threads that make up history. It does not require a deft hand to create chaos out of chaos.
In his debut, Landesman shows potential as an actor’s director with a firm grip on the film medium, creating a tense first-half that feels like a thriller, with tight framing and urgent cutting, such as a scene where doctors try to save J.F.K. Future scripts, however, might best be left to other hands.