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"Parkland" Falls Short of Promise

Parkland—Dir. Peter Landesman (Exclusive Media Group)—2.5 stars

Paul Giamatti plays amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder in Peter Landesman’s “Parkland,” which examines the assassination of John F. Kennedy ’40.
Paul Giamatti plays amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder in Peter Landesman’s “Parkland,” which examines the assassination of John F. Kennedy ’40.
By Amy Friedman, Crimson Staff Writer

Anyone who was alive on November 22, 1963 knows where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot, a day that changed America forever. Writer and director Peter Landesman’s “Parkland,” based on “Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy” by Vincent Bugliosi, tries to tell that story through the eyes of a few bystanders who were directly affected by Kennedy’s death in unexpected ways. Unfortunately, the film packs too much in during its relatively short run time to be very coherent or satisfying, despite its deeply compelling subject matter.

Most moviegoers will likely rush to praise Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Abraham Zapruder, the man behind the Zapruder film. Vital to all conspiracy theories behind the assassination, the Zapruder film is a 26-second reel that captured, in eerie, full-color detail, the murder of John F. Kennedy. Few people think about the man behind the camera, and fewer still probably imagine him as someone whose life was ruined by his camera. Landesman makes the choice never to show the Zapruder film in full—instead we see reactions of others seeing the film for the first time, a compelling tactic that, like many of the film’s almost great moments, descends into melodrama. As the Secret Service pushes Zapruder to develop his film and journalists scramble to get the reel, Giamatti sometimes shows Zapruder’s inner turmoil a little too outwardly. Upon showing the film to Secret Service agents and journalists, he shakes and shudders and eventually shouts, overpowering what could have been a moment of stylistic restraint as Landesman shows the film reflected in Zapruder’s glasses.

Melodrama is also the kiss of death for the most gut-wrenching of the stories—that of Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother, as well as the rest of the Oswald family. The Oscar-winning Jacki Weaver deserves better than she’s given in the role of Lee and Robert’s paranoid mother. Dressed up in cat’s-eye glasses and huge furs, she uses a theatrical Texan accent to explain that her son was working for the government and being framed. She’s a petulant and sour character with little depth, and she seems out of place amid an otherwise complex storyline. Dale, on the other hand, grants endless layers to the role of the pained and confused brother of an assassin. As a stoic man caught in a deluded family, he draws sympathy from the audience as he pleads with his incarcerated brother for information and with his mother for peace. Robert Oswald, apparently, never doubted his brother had killed the President, never knew why, and never left Texas. However, that’s the story you want to be watching, the one after the “Four Days in November,” when Robert Oswald, his children, and his nieces have to carry on the family name. Unfortunately, Landesman only gives Dale two large scenes of note and fails to expand further on his story.

By far the worst of the narratives is, tragically, the one that takes place at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Melodramatic, poorly acted, poorly cast and more or less unnecessary, the scenes seem mostly present for some gruesome shock factor. Landesman pours a truly gratuitous amount of blood over every actor that enters the hospital. Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) walks into the operating room weeping, hands “brain matter” over to the nurse, and then cowers in the corner staring at her husband’s bloody body. Perhaps the oddest part of the hospital scenes, however, is the inexplicable presence of the all-American Zac Efron. Judging by the promotional materials, Efron was expected to draw a crowd, but his scenes are few and far between, and when he is on screen, he stands out for being too “Hollywood” in a movie focused on everyday people. Unfortunately, Efron is a long way from being ready to play the schlubby, understated young Texas doctor on call when both Kennedys arrive at the hospital, and each overlong close-up of his face makes his entire storyline seem forced.

The film does have shining moments—real news footage used throughout goes hand in hand with the perfectly periodized costumes and sets, all of which immediately make viewers feel transported to the fateful day. A few scenes of the Secret Service in mourning are also particularly affecting—some immediately aligned themselves with Johnson (Sean McGraw), others tear apart the interior of Air Force One to make room for JFK’s coffin—especially when juxtaposed against the painfully small ways the Oswalds are permitted to mourn (with no willing pallbearers, Robert Oswald has to implore the journalists covering his brother’s funeral to carry the coffin).

In the end, the most maddening thing about “Parkland” is the thought of how good it could have been. There’s certainly no shortage of acting talent or plot to go around, but Landesman, a newbie to the film world, takes on too much in his directorial debut, and the potential glimpsed throughout the film gets lost in the shuffle.

—Staff writer Amy Friedman can be reached at

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