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Review: Parkland (2013)

Parkland (2013)

Directed by: Peter Landesman

Premise: A dramatization of the events at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas during the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
What Works: When people and events are committed to history, one of the frequent consequences is that those people and events lose their humanness. The way historical filmmaking is often done contributes to this dehumanization. The dialogue and performances of historical pictures are often overly dramatic and shot in the style of a classic Hollywood film. Instead of bringing the audience closer to the event they often push them father away. Parkland is less a dramatization of history and more an attempt at historical recreation, sort of like a cinematic version of a Civil War reenactment. The point of the picture is to place the viewer in the historical moment, and the filmmakers accomplish that. Shot in a cinema verite style and using very little non-diegetic music, Parkland brings history to life and restores the humanity and uncertainty of the moment. This is especially significant in the context of the Kennedy assassination. There have been numerous books, television programs, and motion pictures about the event and plenty of those hawk the many conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. Parkland does not indulge these theories and instead it focuses on the impact of the assassination on the people involved. The film is made of various subplots focusing on different members of the Parkland hospital staff and how they were impacted by the event. Of these, the most interesting is the story of Doctor Abraham Zapruder, played by Paul Giamatti. Zapruder captured the famous footage of Kennedy being shot and his story deals very smartly and with a great deal of subtlety with the trauma Zapruder’s experienced from he saw and his concerns about the footage being exploited. Given how famous and familiar this footage has become, Parkland is able to restore some perspective on the human impact of this piece of film. Parkland also deals with the political and law enforcement complexities around the assassination, such as the fight that broke out over the jurisdiction over the crime and over President Kennedy’s remains. This is an underemphasized aspect of the story of the Kennedy assassination and it contributes a lot to the filmmaker’s goal of putting the viewer in the chaos and raw emotion of the moment. Another aspect of the Kennedy assassination that Parkland sheds light upon is the story of Robert Oswald, the brother of Lee Harvey Oswald. As depicted in the film, Robert Oswald was a law abiding citizen whose family name was smeared by his brother’s actions and his mother’s delusions of grandeur. This subplot is the most provocative aspect of Parkland, as it takes apart the mythology of the assassination by portraying Lee Harvey Oswald as an idiot and a loser and showing how his actions not only devastated a nation but also ruined the lives of his family.

What Doesn’t: Parkland suffers a little from its broad scope. The movie has a large cast of characters and no single person or storyline emerges as the lead. While that is the point, it may be confusing to audiences. The way in which narrative movies are conventionally made, viewers are provided with a main storyline in which to invest their emotional stake and the subplots serve to enhance and enrich the background of the main narrative. In Parkland no single plotline emerges as the lead narrative and so the entire picture comes across as a collection of subplots. The result is a little disorienting. There is some truth about history in that disorientation that is appropriate to the movie and its subject matter but it also makes the picture less dramatically satisfying in the way viewers expect.

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, trailers.

Bottom Line: Parkland is great historical filmmaking. Like Paul Greengrass’ United 93, it takes a familiar historical event and restores the emotion and tragedy to it and in the process makes viewers reconsider how they’ve thought about the JFK assassination, one of the most picked over events in American history.

Episode: #472 (January 5, 2014)