Issue 9: Analysis—Parkland (2013)

Fitting in with this issue’s JFK theme, our analysis focusses on 2013’s Parkland. Unlike Oliver Stone’s film about the events of 22 November 1963, this takes a straightforward ‘docudrama’ approach to the assassination, telling the story of that fateful day from the perspective those involved in the aftermath of the shooting…

Parkland1Director: Peter Landesman (who also directs the forthcoming Concussion, this issue’s ‘one to watch‘)

Screenplay: Peter Landesman

Based on: Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi

Synopsis: *Spoilers* Dallas, 22 November 1963. When visiting President John F Kennedy is shot, a handful of individuals are forced to act in extraordinary circumstances.

Parkland3At Parkland hospital, a team of medical staff, including the young Dr. Charles ‘Jim’ Carrico (Zac Efron) and veteran nurse, Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden), battle against the odds to save the president’s life.

As Secret Service chief, Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) tries to piece together the day’s events, he realises there may have been an chance to stop it happening at all.

Federal Agent, James Hosty (Ron Livingston) who was already investigating suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong), realises he received a threatening letter from Oswald days previously but failed to act on it.

Bystander, Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) finds himself thrust into the spotlight when it’s discovered his home movie is the only available footage of the actual assassination.

Oswald’s brother, Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale) struggles to come to terms with what’s happened to his family.

Analysis:  *Spoilers* Released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination, Parkland recounts the tragic events of 22 November 1963 from several interesting perspectives.

Told in pseudo-documentary style, the film cleverly and seamlessly incorporates news footage into dramatized events to put a whole new slant on subject matter that has been much (some might even say overly) utilized by filmmakers.

From the outset, we are quickly introduced to the key players: the medical staff on duty (at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital) when the mortally wounded president was brought in still barely clinging to life; the Secret Service and FBI operatives on whose watch it all happened; Abraham Zapruder, the man who shot the now infamous footage of the motorcade; and the family of the man responsible, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Eschewing the conspiracy theory angle, Parkland plays it with a straight bat; painting Oswald simply as a nutcase who the FBI already had on their radar and may have had the chance to apprehend days earlier.

Given the fact the film focuses on the day of the assassination itself and the few days afterwards, during which Oswald was captured and then killed by Jack Ruby, there is little time for speculation, as confusion and grief enveloped America. Indeed, one of the film’s main strengths is that it manages to capture the pure shock that gripped all those directly involved; from the junior resident doctor, Carrico, who was the first medic to treat the president, through to the world weary Sorrels, a thirty-year Secret Service veteran struggling to come to terms with losing the man he was assigned to protect. Elsewhere, men in suits frantically rush about trying to handle a situation for which there is simply no precedent.

Cast-wise, Parkland is an abundance of riches. Aside from Efron and Thornton, we have Livingston as the FBI agent keeping a file on Oswald who was accused of having had a chance to prevent the assassination, Harden as a religious emergency room nurse, and the ever-wonderful Giamatti as Zapruder, an innocent bystander whose home movie camera captured the only filmed account of the assassination. There are also excellent turns from Dale as Oswald’s straight-laced brother, who can’t understand what the hell’s happened, and Jacki Weaver as his deluded mother who is convinced Lee is a great American.

Based on Bugliosi’s non-fiction book, the main characters are all based on actual people and their real-life fates are revealed at the end, Argo-style. The direction is suitably urgent and evokes a real 1960s feel, while the script is solid, if a little God-heavy in places (especially towards the end).

The main problem with Parkland is simply that it’s too short (and it’s not often that’s the problem). Like the incident that provides the source material, this is a short, sharp shock of a movie that feels like it needs a second and maybe even a third act. There is no real plot development; this is simply an account of what happened. As a result, the excellent cast really doesn’t get a chance to really flesh out their characters, and the audience is denied any kind of closure.

This is a shame as there are plenty of interesting stories to be told here; not least Zapruder, who could easily fill a whole film himself, as a simple immigrant’s son struggling with his unwanted popularity, while trying to grieve for the president.

Even now, watching the smiling, full-of-life president getting shot down in such a brutal manner has the power to send a shudder down the spine. It was obviously one of the defining moments in US (and world) history, and, to its credit, Parkland manages to bring a sense of what it was like to be right there in the centre of the action as the unthinkable happened.

It’s just a shame this is a docu-style drama with the emphasis on the ‘docu’, as opposed to the ‘drama’.

So, what lessons can be learnt from Parkland? It’s interesting that the film marks the directorial debut of Landesman, who has a background in investigative journalism. As noted above, the film has a definite documentary feel. On the plus side, viewers are taken into places that would otherwise remain off-limits, such as the operating room at Parkland hospital and the jail where Oswald was taken. However, the film feels very intrusive at times, such as in scenes involving the grieving First Lady, Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens).

Maybe the film’s greatest achievement is its use of historical footage and facts. As Landesman himself said: “We began developing the script from Vince Bugliosi’s majestic book. But I also went looking for people who had never spoken before. When I was a journalist, I learned that the only people I really wanted to speak with were those who didn’t want to speak to me. They are the ones who have the untouched truth. People who are eager to talk usually have an agenda.”

As such, he was able to get the family of Abraham Zapruder to co-operate, when they had never before publicly shared their story, and he spent three days with FBI Special Agent Jim Hosty. Landesman also searched out long-forgotten sources of information, such as out-of-print books, oral histories and interviews.

All of this effort meant Landesman managed to put a new perspective on one of the most talked about, analysed and socially significant occurrences in US history. Find out more about the process of researching and making Parkland here.

So, if you’re aspiring to write a film about well-known events, try to find a unique angle. Look at the secondary players and how the event impacted their lives; take a fresh look at the event and try to find an interesting detail that could be spun into a central or supporting plotline; and consider utilizing different storytelling techniques.

However, don’t forget the dramatic narrative.

In many ways, Parkland was a wasted opportunity to do something great. With enough material for a TV mini-series; access to people who actually witnessed the event; multiple interesting plotlines; and a fresh perspective on well-known historical event, the film could have been really special. However, the critics were almost unanimously lukewarm (at best) about the film. A disappointing example of the whole adding up to considerable;y less than the sum of its parts.

Given all the effort that goes into writing a film, don’t sell your project short by failing to fully develop your characters and engage the audience on an emotional level. Remember: Viewers want to be drawn in; not kept at arm’s length.

Issue 10 of RSL is out on 28 September.