Dark, chaotic day recalled in effective ‘Parkland’

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and some of the educational channels such has The History Channel and National Geographic have been offering specials, some repeated from previous years, covering that dark day in U.S. history. Included is the drama “Killing Kennedy,” based on the best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly and featuring Rob Lowe as JFK and Ginnifer Goodwin as Jackie Kennedy.

Meanwhile,  the movie “Parkland” had a limited run in theaters earlier this fall and now is getting a chance to reach a wider audience via pay-per-view offerings.

Co-writer Peter Landesman makes his directorial debut with “Parkland,” collaborating with Vincent Bugliosi (“Helter Skelter”) on the screenplay, based on Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November.”

Parkland Memorial Hospital was where JFK was taken and died on Nov. 22, 1963, after suffering a massive head wound during a shooting in Dealey Plaza on the outskirts of Dallas while riding in a motorcade. Three days later, alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald also died at Parkland after being shot in the abdomen by Jack Ruby during an attempt to transfer him to a county jail.

Although the movie is titled “Parkland,” the facility inevitably became a historical footnote and site for tourists, as the actions at the hospital pretty much were inconsequential. Both Kennedy and Oswald were beyond saving by the time they were rolled into the emergency rooms.

There are some intense and gruesome scenes at Parkland as the emergency doctor on duty , Charles “Jim” Carrico (Zac Efron), tries feverishly and futilely to save both men’s lives. Also detailed in the movie is the ugly scene when the Secret Service forcibly violated Texas law by removing JFK’s body and returning it to Air Force One for the flight back to Washington, D.C., shoving aside Dallas officials who insisted the body be retained for an autopsy.

“Parkland,” aside from the chaos at the hospital, focuses on four other characters drawn unwittingly into the tragedy. There is Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), head of the Secret Service unit charged with providing JFK’s protection during the Texas trip. There is Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the unassuming Dallas businessman who filmed the now famous and graphic seconds of the assassination. There is Robert Oswald  (James Badge Dale), a low-key family man whose life is turned inside out because his brother Lee is the alleged assassin. There is James Hosty (Ron Livingston), the Dallas-based FBI agent who had been tracking Oswald but did not believe he was a threat.

Giamatti as Zapruder and Dale as Oswald are particularly touching as two men who gain unwanted fame thanks to nasty twists of fate. Giamatti  portrays Zapruder as a decent man forced to keep his emotions in check, although anguished, as he deals with the unfolding realization of what he captured on film. Particularly agonizing is the moment when Zapruder first views the film, horrified as the footage shows the devastating head shot. Zapruder also most deal with the officials, as Sorrels demands to view the film, and the seemingly crass aspects of history, with Life magazine pursuing rights to the film – Zapruder agrees to sell the film only upon assurance from Life that the grisly frames showing the head shot never be shown publicly, a promise that Life could never keep.

Dale, who had a memorable scene-stealing turn as Gaunt Young Man in last year’s “Flight,” presents Robert Oswald as a man whose initial shock and bafflement upon hearing his brother is the alleged assassin are soon replaced by frustration. His meeting with Lee (Jeremy Strong) has him exploding in exasperation as Lee seemingly dismisses the scope of his alleged actions and talks about daughter June needing new shoes. Later Robert can only react with amazement as his mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver) appears delusional, insisting Lee was a government agent  and a hero and who seems more interested in exploiting her family’s new fame to make money.

The government officials of Sorrels and Hosty come off less sympathetic, although Hosty is understandably surprised that Oswald, who he thought was just a lightweight if disgruntled person,  was capable of pulling off such a crime. Hosty soon gets caught up in the panic at the FBI office as his superiors are more concerned that the FBI will be embarrassed that the agency had Oswald in its sights but did nothing.

Sorrels is shown as a man who tries to set aside his anguish but also seems a bit preoccupied with his agency’s image too, failing to prevent an assassination.

The use of handheld cameras adds to some of the frenzied activity in “Parkland,” especially in the hospital scenes. In the more calm, if dramatic moments, Giamatti and Dale provide touching moments, as Zapruder finally breaks down later at home in the arms of his wife. And in a sad finale of a life that tragically misfired, Lee Oswald’s funeral is a testimony to a man to be forever despised. With not enough people in attendance even to provide pallbearers, Robert Oswald must plea to newspaper photographers covering the event to help him carry the casket to the grave site.

“Parkland” offers a unique and wrenching look at some of the people who were relegated to the background that sad weekend in 1963, but were very much a part of a tragic unfolding of history.

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