November 22, 1963 was a day that caught the nation and the world off guard. Peter Landesman’s Parkland attempts to capture the immediacy of the JFK assassination and show how everyone in Dallas was unprepared for the event, and for a few minutes it appears that the plan is bound to succeed. Employing a handheld docudrama quality, the writer/director identifies a few of the key players as they begin their respective mornings and ably pieces together archival footage of the Kennedys’ time in Fort Worth and descent into Dallas. Once the murder actually occurs, though, the film turns rushed and choppy, ushering in waves of inconsistent low-budget filmmaking that do the revered subject matter few favors.
A first-time director, Landesman is in such a hurry to get to the big event that he loses focus on the work at large. All at once, the motorcade is before Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who stands filming the progress with his own handheld camera. Landesman’s lens solely on Zapruder when the shots are fired, things grow suddenly corny when he realizes what’s happened and starts yelling, “They killed him!” Offering little sense of the surrounding pandemonium, save for a few fellow witnesses in his vicinity, the choice feels unprofessional and throws the film into a temporary disarray.
The tone carries through to the news coming in to Parkland Hospital and the staff’s response there. Just as clumsily and with no build-up, nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) bursts in the operating room to inform Dr. Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) that the President is on his way. Not ready for the doomed challenge that awaits, the medical team dives in and the film at last gains some traction when Landesman finally allows a scene to develop. Repeating this formula with the mother (Jacki Weaver) and brother (James Badge Dale) of Lee Harvey Oswald, the film shows encouraging signs of competency. For strands that focus on the Parkland staff, FBI, and Secret Service agents, however, the abrupt nature means barely getting to know what makes this large cast of characters tick and suggests a 90-minute film yearning to be at least a half hour more developed.
Not helping matters, Parkland increasingly feels like a cheap DIY project. Scenes devolve into talented performers scowling and overacting (especially Billy Bob Thornton and David Harbour), a limitation that shifts focus to the low production value. The technical aspects in full focus, one is able to see through the filmmaking mystique and be uncomfortably aware of the camera’s presence, to the point that watching is essentially being on set witnessing the film’s creation. The effect isn’t quite to the level of a Sweded flick from Be Kind Rewind, but more akin to filming Lawrence of Arabia on a beach or in a golf course sand trap. How Landesman figured he’d make a film on JFK’s death through such transparent means is a mystery.
Rated PG-13 for bloody sequences of ER trauma procedures, some violent images and language, and smoking throughout.
Parkland is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.