Parkland: The Forgotten Tales of November 22nd

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Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s film Parkland, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination is out on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD this week and even if you don’t agree with its lone gunman perspective, it’s a well-acted and moving portrayal of this tragic event. Parkland is named after the hospital in which President Kennedy and his alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald were treated for their fatal wounds and the location serves as the framing device to bookend the plot of the film. Rather than focusing on President Kennedy and Oswald themselves, the film centers around the oft-overlooked individuals on the sidelines.The filmmakers seem to understand that the melodrama of Kennedy and Oswald themselves has been well documented in the endless slog of TV movies on the subject and have decided to expose us to some of the other key figures in the case.

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Most notably, this is the first drama to to adequately tell the story of Abraham Zapruder, an ordinary Dallas dressmaker who was catapulted into the history books by filming the assassination on his 8mm Bell and Howell camera. As played by the eminently recognizable but ultimately versatile Paul Giamatti, Parkland is clearly Zapruder’s film. The plot also spends considerable time with some of the law enforcement officers who dropped the ball that day, including Forrest Sorrels and Roy Kellerman of the Secret Service and James Hosty of the FBI. As portrayed by Billy Bob Thorton, Tom Welling and Ron Livingston respectively, the characters evoke genuine pathos as they come to the heartbreaking realization that they should have been able to stop the assassination. The film is also the first “Oswald did it” pictures that unabashedly admits that the FBI covered up the nature of their relationship with the President’s alleged assassin. Hanks and Goetzman seem to understand that while there may not have been a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, there sure as hell was a conspiracy to cover up the circumstances of the crime.

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Parkland approaches the conspiracy debate through the characters of Oswald’s brother Robert and his mother Marguerite. Marguerite clearly represents the conspiracy theorists, claiming that her son was a government agent framed for the assassination. Robert on the other hand, represents those who believe Lee Oswald acted alone. The portrayal is hardly even-handed however, as Marguerite comes off as completely crazy and Robert is shown as extremely lucid and sober. This is not an unfair representation of the individuals themselves as Marguerite was  a rather unhinged woman but conspiracy theorists should take umbrage with being unilaterally categorized as insane. James Badge Dale’s steady performance as Robert Oswald serves as an emotional bedrock for the film, demonstrating that the Kennedy family was not the only victim of this crime.

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Although he has less screen time than Dale, Jeremy Strong as Lee Oswald looks eerily like his historical counterpart, going against the trend of portraying the alleged assassin as a handsome hipster. If this were any other film, the producers probably would have cast Zac Efron as Oswald instead of Strong.

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Speaking of Efron, the cast is rounded out with a solid ensemble at the hospital including the aforementioned heartthrob as Dr. Carrico, the physician who had the thankless task of attempting to resuscitate the fatally wounded President. He is joined by Macia Gay Harden as Nurse Doris Nelson and Colin Hanks as presiding physician Dr. Malcom Perry, who aren’t given very much to do but do it well nonetheless.

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It’s worth noting some of the controversy surrounding the film. When it was announced that Tom Hanks was producing a project based on the works of famed prosecutor/writer Vincent Bugliosi, there was considerable uproar amount assassination researchers. For those who believe in a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy, Bugliosi has emerged as the most prominent poster child of the opposition. Even a self-professed “agnostic” such as myself has to admit that Bugliosi’s dismissive and condescending tone as a writer and public speaker is so insufferable that it is hard to take his work seriously. Bugliosi’s immense tome Reclaiming History should have been the definitive textbook for JFK conspiracy debunkers but despite painstaking research, the author seems more interested in besmirching those who oppose his views than actually opposing their views.  So it’s no wonder that when Hanks’ company Playtone Pictures announced they were producing a sprawling miniseries based on the book, a lot of people were not excited about Bugliosi’s views reaching an audience beyond the unfortunate few such as myself who picked up the 1,500+ page monstrosity.

Somewhere along the line, Hanks wisely chose to shift gears to the 90 minute Parkland, which is based on Bugliosi’s condensed paperback Four Days in November. Four Days is a relatively straightforward retelling of the fatal days leading up to and following the assassination. Still, the book isn’t any more popular than it’s heftier big brother. I remember I had a copy sticking out of my back pocket while talking chatting with Robert Groden on the grassy knoll and needless to say, he wasn’t happy to see it. I explained to Bob that the only reason I had it was because I needed Bugliosi’s diagram of the location of all the photographers at the time of the shooting so I could recreate their shots. Groden, who served as the photographic expert for the House Select Committee on Assassinations and was the man who first showed the Zapruder film to the public, seemed to grant a tacit approval of my endeavours and we had a fruitful conversation about the photographic evidence among other things. I would be curious to see what Bob and some of the other prominent conspiracy authors think of Parkland if they have seen it.

For the general viewing public, Parkland serves as a useful counterpoint to Oliver Stone’s JFK and a more tasteful alternative to the far flashier-looking Killing Kennedy, the TV movie based on Bill O’Reilly’s book of the same name. Because as insufferable as Bugliosi may be, I can at least hold down my lunch when hearing him speak. This certainly cannot be said of O’Reilly, who has the unique ability to be as intellectually ill-equipped as he is ideologically nauseating. While Killing Kennedy seems content to continue the lurid TV movie tradition of romanticizing the assassination with gratuitous slow motion shots and sexy stunt casting, Parkland is one of the most straightforward films we are likely to see on the Kennedy assassination for a long time to come.

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