If you thought President Kennedy’s assassination had been looked at from every angle already, from conspiracy theories in JFK(1991), to melodrama in TV’s The Kennedys, think again.
Rookie writer/director Peter Landesman’s choppy yet oddly ponderous attempt at a sideways take on this still-disturbing historical episode spotlights the ordinary people directly affected by JFK’s violent death.
What must have been a great pitch, judging by the starry cast, turns out to be a slick but splintered affair. Landesman layers up melancholy story slivers like wilting floral tributes. And given that Bobby (2006) – Emilio Estevez’s Nashville-inflected study of Robert Kennedy’s death – used the same device, it doesn’t even have originality on its side.
Well made, and generally well-played, its script is full of thudding, titter-inducing missteps. When Zac Efron’s nerve-frozen junior doctor is pushed into treating the wounded JFK by Marcia Gay Harden’s motherly nurse, we get an exchange worthy of soft soap General Hospital.
The try-hard visuals, employing Paul Greengrass-style camerawork, bring tension and a useful sense of chaos to the knock-down, drag-out Secret Service fights that bundle JFK’s coffin out of the hospital and onto Air Force One.
But they can’t enliven the Zapruder film subplot, whose ‘will-it-be-viewable?’ suspense feels superfluous (despite Paul Giamatti’s nimble, traumatised performance) when we’re dealing with the most famous home movie of all time.
In the last act, the movie suddenly finds its best subject in the family of Lee Harvey Oswald. There’s an awful symmetry with the President’s death as the same medical team leap into action once more.
Oswald’s brother, played with damped-down anger by the excellent James Badge Dale, becomes the film’s still centre. But it’s too little, too late, to transform this clutch of fractured tales into a coherent whole.
Despite some affecting moments, the lumbering Parkland feels more like a well-researched magazine feature than an involving drama. As Billy Bob Thornton’s lawman says: “This was not supposed to happen.”