Do we really need another movie about the Kennedy assassination? That’s the question skeptical moviegoers will probably ask about Parkland, the debut film from journalist-turned-director Peter Landesman. Timed to nearly coincide with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, Parkland arrives with a whiff of opportunism, but it manages to shake off the stink with an assured narrative and a strong sense of purpose.
By telling the stories of several characters tangential to the assassination, Parkland forces viewers to see the tragic event anew. There is no central character; or rather, there is, but he dies in the first few minutes. The film effectively captures the emptiness that followed, while subtly recasting all that we have done in the years since to fill it.
Each character suffers a small, personal disillusionment that springs from the larger, national one. There is Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who harbors mixed feelings over having accidentally filmed a murder; Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), brother of the assassin, who deals with threats and intimidation from the police and an attention-seeking mother; and Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), the young attending physician who worked on Kennedy when he arrived at Parkland Hospital. This real-time sequence that opens is so gripping—the medical team spends a brutally long time attempting to revive him—that the film never quite gets over it. In some ways, it shouldn’t.
But it’s the story of James Hosty (Ron Livingston), an FBI agent who had Lee Harvey Oswald on surveillance for months but never took his threats seriously, that emerges as the film’s most notable contribution to the Kennedy legend. Fearful that the FBI will be scapegoated by the government and fed to a public hungry for answers, Hosty and his bosses protect themselves in a way that has a lasting impact on our national consciousness. Their actions, probably fresh information for those who haven’t studied the assassination in depth, may even answer some questions surrounding Kennedy’s death that have plagued us for half a century.
With those critical details about the FBI, Parkland could be a response to the last prominent movie about the assassination, Oliver Stone’s JFK. Stone proposed a far-reaching conspiracy theory that involved LBJ, the military-industrial complex, and the mob, and called for government leaders to release the tens of thousands of classified documents about the assassination. Landesman depicts the federal government as more of an ineffectual bureaucracy, hardly capable of the evil with which Stone charged them. I suppose each generation gets the JFK movie it deserves. We should feel lucky to get this one.