The events of Sept. 11, 2001 will in all likelihood be the cataclysmic historic occurrence that will stay etched in the minds of anyone old enough at the time to remember them. The whole world irreversibly changed for the worse that clear blue morning.
But ask those who are now close to 60, or older, and they will tell you they had that same feeling on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
The upcoming 50th anniversary of that tragedy undoubtedly was the impetus of the new film “Parkland,” named for the hospital Kennedy was rushed to after being shot, assumably by Lee Harvey Oswald. Ironically, Oswald would wind up there two days later after being fatally shot by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
In “Parkland,” screenwriter and director Peter Landesman keeps the focus on the chaos of the events of Friday, Nov. 22 through JFK’s funeral the following Monday. He wisely eschews the conspiracy theories espoused in Oliver Stone’s 1991 “JFK” and instead concentrates on how the events affected ordinary people who happened to find themselves on the front lines of history.
Rather than open the film with the traditional credits, Landesman takes a cinema verite approach by eavesdropping on the emergency room of Parkland Hospital on what seems to be a quiet morning. We see a sleepy resident, Dr. Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), and head nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) get ready for duty. In what will seem to be a “Twilight Zone” episode for them, they will find their ordinary lives upended forever in a few hours as they try against poor odds to save the life of the most important man in the world at the time.
Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) is a 58-year-old Dallas garment manufacturer who lets his office take an early lunch break so everyone can watch the President in his motorcade come through nearby Dealey Plaza. Zapruder is a proud American who is eternally grateful to the United States for allowing his parents and his entire family to emigrate here and avoid certain death from anti-Semitic pogroms in the USSR. He is also a huge Kennedy supporter, which put him in a minority in Dallas at the time.
Zapruder was also a photography buff who couldn’t wait to use his new Bell & Howell so that he could have a keepsake of JFK’s trip to his hometown. In spite of what sounded like firecrackers and screams, he had the presence of mind to keep filming the motorcade as it sped away from Dealey Plaza. Zapruder immediately knew that he had a tape of history that no one else did. It did not take long for the FBI to realize that as well. To his credit, he cooperated with the federal authorities.
He also realized he would no longer have a normal life, and that is why, Landesman claims, that he sold the frames from his film to Life Magazine for a hefty price as a way of compensating him and his family for their loss of anonymity.
Aside from Jackie, perhaps no one was more tortured about the events in Dallas that day than Forrest Sorells (Billy Bob Thornton), who headed up the Secret Service’s Dallas office. You can feel his anguish as he recounts how he never lost his man in 30 years of being on the job and how he snaps when he sees the Zapruder film for the first time.
The character whom we surprisingly feel for is Robert Oswald (James Bade Dale), the older brother of Lee Harvey (Jeremy Strong). Robert is a hardworking family man who knows his brother is a wacko — but certainly not to the extent that he would come to discover, along with the rest of the world. He never doubts for a minute that Lee was the triggerman but still visits him in his Dallas jail cell to say he will try to find a lawyer for him. Lee appears to be insane as he tells Robert how worried he is that his daughter needs new shoes.
“You are being charged with killing the president of the United States and you are talking about your daughter’s shoes!” Robert cries. “What about the kind of life that they are going to have now?”
Robert also has to deal with a calculating, mentally unhinged mother (Jacki Weaver), who tells the world that Lee is a secret agent for the CIA. When JFK is killed, her first reaction is to think of the money that she can make by writing a book. You can tell from Robert’s face that he would love to strangle her if it weren’t a crime. He is an ordinary guy trapped in a very extraordinary situation.
Landesman nicely blends in news footage of the events of those four long days in November a half-century ago with a taut script that comes in at 93 minutes. Seeing the late anchors Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, as well as terrific and sadly forgotten journalists such as Bill Ryan and Tom Petit, will bring back memories for a lot of us.
“Parkland” is an engrossing film and a great way for those under 55 to understand why JFK’s death really was the end of America’s innocence. The only criticism I have is that Ruby is never mentioned. Perhaps his story will be Landesman’s next film.