First-time director Peter Landesman introduced this film by discussing the nature of significant moments and the ways in which they become blurred by later interpretation. The assassination of JFK, he argued, is now so awash with conspiracy theories and emotional reaction that it blinds your reaction to the actual events of November 1963. Instead it’s continually revisited in the hope that this time it will turn out differently – how could such a thing happen on a beautiful sunny day. After seeing Parkland, I was surprised by the fairly negative critical reaction, complaining about the lack of character development and a failure to tackle the longer-term implications and significance of JFK’s death. But I think they’ve missed the point.
This film covers the day of the assassination and the three after, during which time both Kennedy and his assailant Oswald both die. It carefully avoids the showpiece moments, you don’t see the shooting just the man filming it; even later when it’s developed and played back to the FBI, you see a reflection in his glasses and his pained reaction at reliving it. This cleverly underlines the purpose of the film – that it’s not the event itself which is the focus but how it begins to affect the ordinary people unexpectedly drawn into the aftermath and then forgotten. A similarly affecting scene takes place in Parkland hospital where two local doctors are suddenly taken from their patients to save Kennedy’s life – something they never imagined they’d have to do. Parkland was a training hospital, Landesman explained, and the last place you would take an American leader. When they finally stop the resuscitation, the camera pans the hospital and Presidential staff and you see how undignified the death was – not sanitised and clean, but one full of blood and trauma and grief. Everyone in the room has some of Kennedy’s blood on them which is both a neat indictment of his protection squad and a reference to how it would stain them all. Later you see one of the doctors watching the funeral on TV; a couple of days before he’d seen inside Kennedy’s body, and now watched this austere and distant ceremony thousands of miles away, as if his part in it had never happened.
Although you see a lot of stories with a small amount of screen time, the lack of character development seemed deliberate – there aren’t any big heroes or great men, just fairly anonymous people caught up for three days before going back to their lives; we’re not meant to get to know them because they could be anybody, they were involved just because they were there. This is how history happens, no predetermined dramatic story arcs, just a series of occurrences in the lives of ordinary people. The critics are wrong; in traumatic situations people just get through it and carry on – it is only much later that they have to the time to reflect on what it meant. I really enjoyed this film and the documentary style utilised Landesman’s journalistic roots nicely. The high tension of the immediate event dissipates over the ensuing days, as it would naturally, but it remained a gripping insight into the myriad consequences of ‘great’ events. The ensemble performances are great – Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Ron Livingstone and a host of other famous faces. Zac Efron as one of the doctors is also very good, and after his supporting role in The Paperboy, he’s making an interesting and potentially successful transition from Disney to serious film, without falling into the rom-com trap. Whatever you think about the assassination of JFK in its 50th anniversary year, this was an interesting insight into its local effects, and one, I think, that makes a poignant case for stripping away the myths and taking another look at the historicisation of great events.