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Non-Review Review: Parkland

There are few moments that hold as much sway over American popular consciousness as the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Perhaps only the moon landing or the news footage of the 9/11 attacks could compete from the last half-century of history. The assassination and its aftermath have been discussed and reconsidered countless times in the decades since those shots rang out in Dallas. There are those who continue to believe in some sinister conspiracy, while others seem to accept the probability that the nation was rocked by the actions of a single disturbed individual.

Parkland offers relatively little to the discussion, focusing on the stories unfolding around the assassination and the lives that intersect with the famous historical figures who pass through the narrative. While it’s a nice idea in practice, these sorts of historical ensemble pieces can be tricky, as Bobby demonstrated rather recently. There’s a sense that even some of these characters who find themselves caught up in events larger than themselves have become figures of interest themselves, and a scant 93 minutes isn’t enough to peel back any layers or reveal anything particularly insightful.

Sadly, the characters are not as well developed...

Sadly, the characters are not as well developed…

Several of the people caught up in this narrative are relatively famous themselves. The Kennedy assassination is a popular and iconic narrative, and even seeming bit players like  Abraham Zapruder and Robert Oswald have become figures familiar to anybody with even a passing interest in the events of that fateful day. The events were so momentous that documentaries and books have been devoted to covering the intersections of the lives of these seemingly minor players in a larger drama. While far from an objective measure, look at how many Parkland characters have their own wikipedia pages.

Many of the characters in Parkland could support their own films. It might be interesting to get more insight into the home environment that produced Lee Harvey Oswald and the consequences of his actions on his immediate family. As it stands, James Badge Dale is stuck playing a rather bland man caught up in his brother’s mess, while Jacki Weaver chews on the scenery as Oswald’s larger-than-life conspiracy theorist mother, always obsessing about how “they” had recruited her son for this sinister purpose, and demanding that Oswald get a grave in Arlington.

Oswald that ends well...

Oswald that ends well…

Indeed, this plot gets many of the movie’s more effective moments – the refusal of the nursing staff to treat Oswald in the same operating theatre where the President passed away (“living or dying, he is not going into surgery in that room”), or the tragic lonely funeral for a hated man where only the reporters are present to serve as pallbearers. There is a sense that there’s a gritty family value to be seen here, a perverse portrait of a very warped individual. Unfortunately, Parkland can’t seem to devote any time to it.

Similarly, the plot involving Abraham Zapruder, the man responsible for that iconic camera footage of the assassination, feels strangely perfunctory. This is video tape that almost everybody in the world will recognise, imagery that has become impossible to separate from the event itself – in a way, Zapruder’s distribution of the tape ushered in a new era of media, signifying that everybody in the world could potentially document an earth-shattering event. Zapruder is very clearly a direct ancestor of the modern grassroots journalism revolution.

Surgical precision...

Surgical precision…

Instead, it seems like Parkland has next to nothing of interest to say about him. Again, we get some nice images – the way that the home video of Zapruder’s family cuts to the shots of the motorcade and the infamous events that followed is perhaps an effective visual metaphor for the death of America’s innocence and the idealism embodied by Kennedy. However, there’s no real insight here, nothing juicy or fascinating or compelling. Paul Giamatti struggles to work with the material he’s given, but Zapruder ends up no less of a peripheral figure than he ever was.

These are the most interesting of the plots intersecting in Parkland. The film struggles to figure out what it is trying to do. It’s as much about recognisable second-tier characters in the grand drama as it is about lives caught in the chaos. We get a soap opera playing out at a hospital; we get a nice little short story about getting the coffin on to Air Force One; we get some small-scale behind-the-scenes drama involving Lee Harvey Oswald’s history with law enforcement. It’s more a collection of short stories than a film, but the stories are either too shallow to hold attention, or too tightly packed into a tiny amount of space.

Not insightful by any stretcher of the imagination...

Not insightful by any stretcher of the imagination…

There are other problems. Director Peter Landesman can’t figure out what to do with his historical celebrities; we do get head-on shots and dialogue from Lyndon B. Johnson and Jackie Kennedy, but we also get long passages were the film is awkwardly edited to conceal their faces. It feels like Landesman is trying to create a sense of continuity with the newsreel documentary footage he intercuts, but it makes no sense when we get clear shots of Johnson refusing to leave without Jackie, or long shots of Jackie crying in the corner of the operating room.

It creates a sense that Parkland isn’t really sure what it wants to be. These iconic figures don’t occupy the periphery of the screen, but they don’t take focus either. Sometimes they are at the centre of the film, and other times there’s a sense that Parkland wants to be a movie about the ordinary people just caught in the ripples of history. Parkland needs to be bolder, it needs to be more committed to whatever it wants to be.

Not so candid camera...

Not so candid camera…

Instead, there are times when Parkland seems more like an attempt to cram as much Kennedy assassination folklore into a single film as possible. There are fragments of skull, the President’s back brace, the pre-existing red flags around Oswald. That said, the film remains quite adamant that there is no conspiracy. The only character who expresses a hint of doubt about what’s going on is the delusional Marguerite Oswald. Indeed, the several characters go out of their way to dismiss the idea. When Zapruder suggests censoring the head shot, the editor of Life is adamant. “In this case, missing frames would lead to speculation.”

The tight runtime, the lack of depth and the indecision over whether the historical figures are to be present or absent hints at something of a crisis of identity. In the end, Parkland is nothing more than what we’ve seen or heard before. There’s no insight, no interest. Zapruder may have captured the raw events, but Landesman’s camera is not nearly so candid.

 

2 Responses

  1. All of the stories felt like they could have all had their own one-hour segment on HBO or Showtime and would have been better off. Especially the story concerning Oswald’s brother’s character, which, given the right talent involved, could have even gone as far as to get some real Oscar-notice, had it been made into a full-length movie. Good review Darren.

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