‘Parkland’ Review: Too Many JFK Assassination-Adjacent Stories for One Movie

This all-star look at those fateful days in 1963 Dallas casts too wide a net and comes up mostly empty

There’s an old theatrical adage about the supporting actor who says that “Hamlet” is a play about a gravedigger who meets a prince; even the bit players around major events have their own stories to tell.

parkland-PKLD_00465R_rgbThat idea occasionally comes to fruition in “Parkland,” an ensemble drama named for the Dallas hospital where both John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald died of their bullet wounds, but the film shoehorns in so many onlookers and bystanders that it doesn’t really do justice to any of them. The result is a “Hamlet” with 50 gravediggers who run around shouting while the prince barely appears on stage.

As President and Mrs. Kennedy and Vice-President Johnson make their way to Big D, we see many of the locals preparing to start a new day. Some of them, like garment manufacturer Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), are thrilled to see the attractive first couple while others, like overworked Parkland resident Dr. Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), are too busy to even notice the presidential visit.

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Tragedy strikes in Dealey Plaza, and the hospital staff kicks into overdrive, while government agents seek answers and feel guilty over allowing POTUS to go down on their watch. We see Oswald apprehended, to the shock and dismay of his brother Bob (James Badge Dale) and mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver). And when Oswald himself gets shot, that same Parkland staff tries to save his life as valiantly as they fought for the life of his victim’s.

The cast is so overstuffed with talented actors and recognizable faces that there’s almost an “Airport 1975” all-star-disaster quality to the proceedings; while this cast and this story could easily have filled, say, a ten-hour HBO miniseries (the funders of “Parkland” include Tom Hanks‘ Playtone production company, which gave us “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific”), this 93-minute film too often feels like a blink-and-you’ll-miss-em affair.

Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, David Harbour, Tom Welling, Jackie Earle Haley and Colin Hanks (not to mention venerable character actors like Gary Grubbs) are all doing their darnedest, but their presence suggests more than first-time writer-director Peter Landesman, adapting Vincent Bugliosi’s “Four Days in November,” can deliver.

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Unlike the similarly star-filled “Lincoln,” there’s no central character or  storyline around which all these notable satellites are orbiting. We find ourselves wanting to know more about, say, Harden’s nurse or Duplass’ Secret Service agent, but “Parkland” doesn’t have time or interest to stop long enough for that to happen.

It’s no fault of the actors, then, that most of them fail to register as fully formed human beings. Badge Dale and Giamatti each get enough intimate moments with their co-stars that allow them to give something akin to complete performances, but most of their compatriots are reduced to glorified cameos. (Worse still are the ones — Weaver, Harbour and Thornton come to mind — whose only big moment involves yelling or otherwise overdoing it.)

For what it’s worth, being left wanting more automatically makes “Parkland” superior to “Bobby,” another Kennedy assassination movie with too many stars and too few ideas that left audiences wanting much, much less.

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Where “Parkland” succeeds most is in revealing a few not-suitable-for-Life-magazine moments, whether it’s Dr. Carrico performing rather squishy CPR on the president’s body after life has already left it, the awkward placement of Kennedy’s coffin onto a plane not designed to accommodate it, or a stricken Bob Oswald asking for (and receiving) the assistance of the paparazzi to put his brother into the ground after the funeral home refuses to provide pallbearers.

Also giving the movie some much-needed artistry is cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”) who, with the help of the post-production staff, alternately fade and saturate the colors, giving “Parkland” the look of old Kodachrome snapshots that have spent decades in a desk drawer.

More moments and visual choices like these would have gone a long way toward making “Parkland” feel like a fresh and unique take on the oft-tread ground of the Kennedy assassination. What we’re left with, unfortunately, feels rushed and incomplete, like a highlight reel from a much longer piece rather than a satisfying story unto itself.