Based on Vincent Bugliosi’s Four Days in November, Parkland attempts to evoke the national sense of loss, horror, helplessness and regret engendered by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but from the perspective of various individuals close to the ground, so to speak. The day begins, as did JFK’s, as a gusty and bright backdrop to the excitement in Dallas. A bustling Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) commands his staff to take lunch to coincide with the motorcade; he struggles to get his portly middle-aged frame atop a cement block, the better to try out his dandy new camera. Nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) makes sure the ER is well supplied, never dreaming that it would soon be awash in blood. Meanwhile, resident Dr. Jim Carrico tries to bag some z’s as the doctors in charge have a staff meeting in a smoke-filled room. Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale) goes about his day at a desk job that looks about as monochromatic in variety as his wardrobe.
Then, everything changes.
Adeptly interweaving scenes with actual newsreel footage—much of which comes across as incredibly newfound—director Peter Landesman conveys the sense of terror and confusion that must have reigned supreme in Dealey Plaza and beyond. When the hospital staff realizes just who is being wheeled into the ER, there is only a nanosecond to register alarm before they rush to do their jobs. Immediately outside, scores of Secret Service agents, police, and other hospital personnel crowd expectantly, hardly daring to speak, but no doubt inwardly praying. The frailty of the dying president, his life truly ebbing out and in the balance, comes to the fore in ways that even the Zapruder film’s famous kill shot doesn’t quite convey.
As the doctors fight vainly to bring life back to Kennedy, Dallas Bureau Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels gets right to work, questioning Zapruder, finding a photo lab that can print the crucial evidence held within the man’s camera, seeking, like a bloodhound, the cause behind this, his first man lost. Throughout the movie, I drove my son crazy by wondering, in whispers, who was that actor, the one who seemed to possess Sorrels’ very soul, who seemed to belong to that day in November, and whose professionalism mixed with his own raw sense of loss. (The actor in question is Billy Bob Thornton, always a favorite of this reviewer, and one who usually manages to surprise me yet anew.)
Parkland is intriguing. It throbs like real life, but at times it falters, like a record skipping a few times until the needle eventually finds the right groove. It’s annoying but you get used to it, even expect it to right itself. That’s because so much of the movie is rewarding. One tangent that I found especially moving was that of Robert Oswald, a plain, simple man who is still smart enough to realize that his odd brother—his blood kin—seemingly has done something that will irrevocably tarnish his own good name, and the reputation of his children. His attempt to hold onto some remnant of dignity culminates in a hard-to-watch but necessary plea to the news reporters and photographers to help him put Lee Harvey’s coffin in the ground. At the same time, on the same day, other characters watch another funeral at Arlington.
Ultimately, Parkland succeeds exceptionally in how it manages to make us recall a time when people weren’t murdered on screen in real time; the movie’s soul belongs to Zapruder, who, in begging the Life magazine representative to keep the “kill shot” undisclosed, speaks about another forgotten concept—human dignity.