"Parkland" hangs on a split second on Nov. 22, 1963, when a president was shot, a country was wounded and a city was brought to its knees. This unsettling film zeros in on the initial impact — just four days — for those closest to the president, for the many ordinary people of Dallas who became involved, and for a city that would begin to wear the assassination of John F. Kennedy like a shroud.
It is the way in which ordinary acts began to define an extraordinary moment in history, and the residue of regret that would stay with the city, that Peter Landesman's new film seeks to mine. The writer-director digs deeply and with a marked sensitivity, capturing the desperate, heartbroken humanity of the time and the place.
But it is also a movie of frustrating stumbles — blunders that diminish what might have been a brilliant film.
Based on "Four Days in November," author Vincent Bugliosi's riveting, "Rashomon"-like dissection of the assassination, it was an ambitious undertaking to begin with. The book is dense with detail as it parses through thousands of observations and endless small decisions made over the course of those days.
Echoing Bugliosi's minute-by-minute structure, the film is forever shifting between people and points of view as it pares down and follows the timeline of the most critical threads: the morning in Fort Worth, the mid-day flight to Dallas, the motorcade, the shooting, the hospital turmoil, the president's death in the emergency room, the news coverage, the competing investigations, the Zapruder film of the shooting, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, the shooting of the shooter, his death, the burials, one in Washington, one in Texas, on the same final day.
The film uses the chaos as its driving force, setting a brisk pace as it cuts between news footage from the time and all the ancillary actions and reactions triggered by the shooting. The clashing egos, agendas, conflicts, compassion and cooperation keep pulling us from place to place. Though the sense of movement never ceases, the filmmaker does linger long enough at critical junctures for us to see the various players absorb the reality of what has happened, and their role in it.
A sea of faces — some familiar, some not — flood the screen, more than 80 speaking parts in all. Paul Giamatti as the conflicted Abraham Zapruder who took, and sold, that legendary footage. Jacki Weaver, chilling as Oswald's opportunistic, delusionary mother. James Badge Dale as Oswald's stoic brother, understanding the enormity of what has happened and absorbing mass recriminations for a brother he loves but can't forgive. Ron Livingston as the haunted Dallas FBI Agent James Hosty, who had been tracking Oswald, who worries he missed something that could have rewritten that day. Marcia Gay Harden as the ER nurse, Doris Nelson. Zac Efron as Dr. Jim Carrico, the resident on call. Colin Hanks as Dr. Malcolm Perry, the doctor in charge. Billy Bob Thornton as Agent Forrest Sorrels.
Some, like Giamatti, Dale, Harden and Livingston, do justice to the roles. Others, like Efron and Hanks, prove irritating distractions. One, Thornton, is brilliant.
The actor has a way of burrowing so deep inside Agent Sorrels that any of his very distinctive Thornton-ness disappears. In "Parkland," he brings such a sobering authenticity that you take, and feel, the weight of every step as the agent deftly handles Zapruder, the press and the other agents he bumps up against over the course of those four days. In creating this modern-day Job in the depths of despair, Thornton lets us sense the full measure of the loss.
Indeed, the film is saturated by a collective loss.
Parkland Memorial Hospital, which gives the movie its name, is captured in dozens of small moments. One of the most moving: Nurse Nelson (Harden), mindless of the blood on her hands, placing a cross on the president's stilled chest as a priest intones last rites. One of the least: Efron, looking still like a Hollywood pretty boy playing pretend in his desperate attempts as Dr. Carrico to resuscitate the president.
There is judicious use of news footage — often turning up on TVs somewhere in Dallas where some other piece of the story is unfolding. The familiar clip of Walter Cronkite telling the nation Kennedy had been pronounced dead feels somehow new. David Brinkley's wrenching sign-off at the end of the day still carries his humility in speaking of the helplessness of anyone to explain.
The period details meticulously pieced together by the costume and set design teams are exceptional. And "Parkland" represents some of veteran director of photography Barry Ackroyd's strongest work yet, bringing a greater sense of intimacy along with the urgency that we've seen in his fine work in films like "The Hurt Locker," "Green Zone," "United 93."
For all of the personal stories in "Parkland," one of the film's strengths is the way in which it captures our collective loss of innocence. Even with Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley's deaths in our history books, it didn't seem possible in November of 1963, 50 years ago next month, that a president would be gunned down on a city street in this country. From the faces in the street to the news footage of the day, that shock resonates like a dirge in frame after frame.
One scene, though, stands out for the surety with which it is staged.
It comes in the scramble to get Kennedy's casket onto Air Force One for the return to Washington. The question of where the casket would ride becomes an issue — the baggage compartment was unacceptable to everyone, but the passenger cabin was not designed to accommodate such significant cargo. There is a rush to remove seats, anyone, everyone, lending a hand. As the Secret Service agents struggle to ascend the stairs, their hold on the casket is precarious at best.
That moment certainly reflects the filmmaker's years as a journalist, knowing how potent dispassionate observation can be, and expresses eloquently the confusion of those days, just how unprepared everyone was to deal with the realities, the unnoticed acts of compassion, contrition.
In scenes like that, authentic, heartfelt and true, the movie stuns and soars.
But others — when the actors are reaching, when the tension goes slack, when emotions ring false — bring it down.
What you never doubt are the intentions, to illuminate the ordinary, to find a way to make a historical event newly indelible. "Parkland" succeeds as it fails. For whatever its flaws, it is unforgettable.