As a depiction of the events on the day of American President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22nd 1963 – as well as the three days in the immediate wake of the killing – Parkland doesn’t cover any historical or narrative ground that hasn’t been touched on before, nor does it go out of its way to create melodrama. Peter Landesman’s debut feature is a taut, suspenseful 90 minutes that hits all the proper talking points but does it in a remarkably visceral and fast paced fashion with an all star cast of wonderfully slotted performers.
Parkland looks at that fateful day through the eyes and feelings of those forced with bring a degree of truth to the day’s proceedings. There are the local doctors who tried to save Kennedy’s life (Zac Efron, Colin Hanks), tailor and unwitting future conspiracy theory rallying figure Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), shooter Lee Harvey Oswald’s grief stricken and confused brother (James Badge Dale), the FBI agent who let the Oswald walk ten days prior (Ron Livingston) because he thought the guy was a nut, and the Secret Service head (Billy Bob Thornton) who can’t fathom being the only person to lose a president in a century while on duty.
Their lives are all indelibly changed by the incident, but some more interestingly than others, and Landesman’s film suffers by feeling at times like an underbaked TV pilot where not everyone is given equal footing and feeling. As fine as Efron and Hanks are, their stories wrap up pretty early and easily because their feelings of grief and disappointment in themselves really doesn’t have the biggest cultural impact. Ditto for Thornton and Livingston, whose lawmen have such specified issues tied to the case that Landesman never quite finds himself able to wrap them into the story as a whole. Only Giamatti and Dale get a chance to shine through their thinly sketched characters for moments of real, deep dramatic work, but the latter gets stuck next to a dreadfully hammy and sneeringly villainous mama Oswald, making his work even harder.
These characters are fine as snapshots, and it’s probably key to understanding Landesman’s thesis that there’s no room for catharsis when a tragedy is so high profile and swiftly moving towards some sort of justice. If anything, Landesman’s instincts and sense of balance are in the right place, and while maybe things could stand to actually be a bit longer and better explained, it’s at least a no-bullshit distillation of one of American history’s most defining events that hasn’t been attempted before. It gets more right than it does wrong, making the ambition worth it in the end.