Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Parkland’ revives interest in JFK

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Parkland: ‘”A small but handsomely mounted recreation of the events that rang down the curtain on Camelot”

Where were you on November 22nd, 1963? For many years most American adults could answer that question in their sleep, but November 22nd has since been eclipsed by September 11th on the roll-call of infamous historical dates. No longer American collective memory’s gold standard, the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination passes quietly most years.

This year, though, will be different: the 50th anniversary of the assassination has temporarily revived interest in all things JFK, with a new made-for-television movie, Killing Kennedy, airing on the National Geographic Channel on Nov. 10. If you can’t wait that long for your Kennedy fix, however, consider Parkland (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Oct. 4), a small but handsomely mounted recreation of the events that rang down the curtain on Camelot.

Produced by Tom Hanks (and burdened with a portentous, Saving Private Ryan-style score from James Newton Howard), Parkland takes its title from the hospital in which both President Kennedy and his accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, were declared dead. Dallas’ primary public hospital, Parkland remains open today, its place in history acknowledged by a memorial plaque in the radiology department.

One might reasonably suspect that a film about the Kennedy assassination could get bogged down in the minutiae of conspiracy theories, but that’s not the case with Parkland. Reflecting producer Hanks’ respectful tone towards history, the film avoids the route taken by Oliver Stone’s highly contentious JFK. There’s no fanciful prognosticating here, no wild-eyed Jim Garrison, no ‘Best Evidence’ theorizing about post-assassination surgical alterations and switched caskets.


So does the film take the opposite tack, placing Oswald and his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository and accepting the single bullet theory at face value? Not exactly. Despite the fact that only three gunshots are heard on its soundtrack (something guaranteed to raise the hackles of the conspiracy-minded), Parkland withholds comment on the veracity of the Warren Commission Report and leaves Oswald’s guilt or innocence an open question.

As played by stage actor Jeremy Strong, the one-time Marine, defector, and Fair Play for Cuba activist comes across as a befuddled and maddeningly opaque young man. It’s a fine performance, but audiences will identify more with chameleonic Paul Giamatti’s turn as Abraham Zapruder, the Kennedy enthusiast with a Super 8 camera and a date with destiny. Giamatti, surely one of cinema’s finest actors, conveys the joy, horror, and shock experienced by millions of Americans as that long ago November day unfolded.

Written and directed by Peter Landesman (himself a gentleman not entirely free of controversy) and beautifully shot by Ken Loach’s regular cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Parkland shoehorns an immense amount of history into 93 snappy minutes. It won’t help you make sense of the Kennedy assassination, but how could it? After 50 years and hundreds of books suggesting that everyone from the Soviets to the CIA to the mafia were responsible for Kennedy’s death, there’s still not a lot about it that does make sense.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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