REVIEW: 'Parkland' reimagines history as a shouty acting exercise

If you like pointed specificity of historical events blunted and woven into a fine tapestry of bland drama, then Parkland, from Tom Hanks’ Playtone productions, is the movie for you! Now, I suspect my reaction to this film will be more negative than most, as Parkland avoids the kind of overt shallowness that courts negative reviews, and the self-conscious somberness with which it treats an Important Subject alone will probably be enough to innoculate it against outright pans. But… honest injun, I hate movies like this, and for good reason. Sure, it’s a careful recreation of certain superficial aspects of history, and all the actors, most of them fine craftsmen, get to act their little actors’ hearts out in actorsy roles. But you have to wonder: what was it they got all dressed up for? Was it because they had an actual story to tell, or was this all just a big excuse to emote? I guess I was just hoping for some kind of insight. It’s a bad sign when you get more out of the epilogue text before the credits than the whole movie that preceded it.

Parkland purports to tell the story of some of the minor characters normally left out of the JFK assassination story, “a handful of ordinary individuals suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances,” including the doctors and staff at Parkland hospital (Zac Efron and Colin Hanks as the doctors), the secret service agents (the chief played by Billy Bob Thornton), Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother (James Badge Dale), Abe Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), local FBI agents (Ron Livingston), and a handful of others. Supposedly writer/director Peter Landesman adapted it from Vincent Bugliosi’s book Four Days in November, and after having seen the movie, I’m dying to know what the book was about, because I can’t imagine Bugliosi could stretch 90 minutes of actors alternately crying and yelling at each other into 688 pages. There must have been some lengthy descriptions of guys with blood on their collars (how do they keep getting it on their collars? always with the blood on the collars. so cinematic.).

See, I don’t know all the details of the Kennedy assassination. But I have seen actors yell at their subordinates, tear apart their desks in anger, desperately give each other CPR until being pulled away, issue terse threats, and other actorsy stuff before, many times in fact. So in that sense, Parkland isn’t an untold story at all. In fact it retells the age-old story, GRRR, ACTING!

Not that there wasn’t a glimmer of hope and a worthwhile idea behind Parkland, that’s part of what makes it so frustrating. Back in college I had a crazy French film professor who I’ve mentioned here before, who would always tell us that his idea for a Holocaust movie was to just show the guys who had to engineer racks the Nazis used to stack and cremate bodies. You always saw the soldiers and Hitler and the planes and the speeches in WWII movies, but what about the handful of guys who had to sit around devising a way to dispose of all the bodies, and get them to burn completely? Wouldn’t they present a fascinating aspect of human nature? The brutal logistics and mundanity of evil?

I mention it because there’s a wisp of this approach to Parkland. At one point, the Dallas medical examiner played by Rory Cochrane comes into the hospital to try to claim the president’s body to perform an autopsy, as is procedure. But the secret service and the president’s personal doctor angrily rebuff him, saying they’re taking the body to Washington, and there’s a big scuffle over the body by the two agencies with conflicting orders. The feds eventually win out, but when they get to Air Force One, with the secret service guys trying to get the president’s heavy coffin safely onto the plane, the door isn’t big enough. One of the secret service guys, played by Smallville’s Tom Welling, takes out a saw and hastily starts sawing at the plane door to get the coffin inside.

Now this, this could’ve made for an interesting movie. The surreal tragicomedy of logistics that an unexpected event like the assassination of the president can produce. They can’t get the coffin inside the plane, now what? Cut open the plane? Take him out of the coffin? And if you do that, where do you put him? There’s so much opportunity for these kinds of dilemmas and the complex emotions and conflicts they would produce – wouldn’t someone who had to fly on that plane object to another guy going at its exterior with a saw? You’d think so, but it never happens in Parkland. Instead, the whole skit with the coffin was just an ancillary side drama produced by Landesman’s desire to depict Tom Welling as sad, dutiful, determined. HE LURVES HIS PRESIDENT, YOU SEE. Parkland goes all in on the simple emotions, and avoids the complex ones. I never did find out how they fixed that f*cking door.

Landesman was already onto the next scene, of some dour public servant tearing his desk apart and crumpling in a heap because he was so broken up about the president. By the way, an Esquire account of what happened on Air Force One that day makes no mention of anyone sawing at the plane, only them taking the handles off the coffin. I’m guessing the saw was just some bullshit Landesman invented to make the scene feel more “dramatic,” which only served to create an obnoxiously unanswered question, a microcosm of his approach to the movie as a whole.

This is a pattern in Parkland. Landesman doesn’t want to tell you any of the details of why the bullet that killed Oswald that they initially thought wasn’t life threatening ended up being fatal minuts later, he just wants to film Oswald’s brother looking sad. We get lots of the FBI agents and secret service guys clashing with each other, but something tells me that in real life, not all of those people expressed their complex emotions by screaming at each other and throwing things. I was hoping Parkland might offer some details or insight, but all I got was crocodile tears and chest beating. I held out hope for most of the movie, but by the time it closed on a faux-meaningful montage of the FBI agent burning Oswald’s file and Oswald’s brother dumping dirt on his coffin, I realized we’d been had. Like Jobs before it, Parkland is a movie that seems to have been researched with exhaustive study of other movies and only a cursory skim of its own subject matter.


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