Around history’s edges: Parkland (Peter Landesman, 2013)

parkland

All kinds of things get left out of history’s narrative, whether for ideological reasons or because a simple story is just easier to remember. Parkland takes a look at some of the people who were deeply effected by the JFK assassination, but who are mostly forgotten in the many retellings of this event. Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) is an exception, but the film also focuses on Robert and Marguerite Oswald (James Badge Dale and Jackie Weaver), various CIA and Secret Service men, and the staff of the Parkland Hospital, upon whose operating tables both JFK and LHO died.

Many of the details in Parkland are the kind that you’d ordinarily only come across in a well-researched book, and not a film. As such, they don’t fit together to make a substantial work onscreen. However, many of its most interesting moments feel like Easter eggs, inessential but still a treat. Glenn Morshower, who played the ever-reliable Agent Pierce in 24, plays a similar character here. Gary Grubbs, who played one of Jim Garrison’s coworkers in Oliver Stone’s JFK, here plays the doctor who calls the president’s time of death. Another doctor makes an effort to keep the Secret Service men from removing the body, insisting on an autopsy; that he’s unsuccessful is fuel for conspiracy theorists, even though their views are given no credence in this film. In a moment not neat enough to be film-worthy, but characteristic of real life, the agents have to frantically tear up a plane so that they can fit the coffin on board.

Considering that this historical event has been so analysed in broader terms (you can extend its significance about as far as you’d like, especially if you’re being played by Donald Sutherland), it’s also nice to see it approached in a more personal way. The government employees don’t make much of an impact, aside from the focused Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton). The Oswalds, however, are people caught in uniquely terrible circumstances. The differing attitudes the Parkland staff take towards treating the president and LHO, combined with the surviving Oswalds’ experiences, raise intriguing questions about the value of human life.

Parkland is scattered with famous faces. Some, such as Jackie Earle Hayley as a priest and Marcia Gay Harden as a nurse, don’t do much more than show up. Zac Efron gets little emphasis as Dr. Carrico; Colin Hanks makes more of an impression in the same type of role and almost as much screentime. Adam Strong gets the unenviable task of playing LHO; I hope he had fun patterning himself after Gary Oldman. Weaver gets to be shockingly nuts, and is good at it. Dale, whose career has somehow not been as successful as Morshower’s since his own stint on 24, is a standout.

It was quite right to give the role of Zapruder to Giamatti. Of all the characters, he’s the one who most directly influenced history, by recording it. (I’m assuming that the doctors couldn’t have saved JFK or LHO.) He’s also the one the film most vividly humanises. During the assassination, the camera stays on his face, and on his own camera. The gunshots seem like inconsequential pops. The footage Zapruder recorded in those few seconds is mostly viewed, within the film, through his eyes, emphasising how horrific it is. Zapruder’s insistence that the bullet hits never be shown challenges the numbing effect caused by Stone’s “back and to the left” repetitions.

There’s probably nothing in Parkland that couldn’t be learned by reading a book. Perhaps it’s not even based wholly on facts. But considering that there has been so much written about this single event (even the book on Stone’s film is a hefty read), it’s convenient for a film to collect together the small moments we may not otherwise know, and throw in some food for thought while doing so.

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