Venice Film Festival 2013: Parkland - All the detail you could want of JFK killing, but where's the story?

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Parkland is the name of the Dallas Hospital to which President John F Kennedy was rushed after he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22nd 1963. “It’s a shitty place to die,” we hear one character murmur in Peter Landesman’s new ensemble drama, produced by Tom Hanks and set in Dallas at the time of Kennedy’s assassination.

The film is very well filmed in a verite style reminiscent of DA Pennebaker documentaries of the early 60s. There is constant use of handheld camera and lots of sweaty close-ups of panicked FBI agents and medical staff. The performances are full blooded and Landesman includes details that are bound to be fascinating to anyone interested in the circumstances in which JFK died. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean Parkland works as a drama. Landesman offers us a sophisticated and meticulously detailed historical reconstruction that, as storytelling, remains disappointingly inert.

Early in the film, just before the motorcade arrives in Dallas, we are introduced to Abraham Zapruder, getting ready to film the President with his Bell & Howell 8mm camera. As played by Paul Giamatti, he is a sweet natured, Mr Magoo-like man who is utterly traumatised when he ends up recording the famous footage of Kennedy’s death.

Forrest Sorrels, head of the Secret Service in Dallas and played with grim intensity by Billy Bob Thornton, is desperate to get hold of the footage. In one brilliantly shot sequence in the hospital operating room, we see Dr Jim Carrico (Zac Effron) and a small army of nurses struggling desperately to keep Kennedy alive as blood spattered secret service agents and Jackie Kennedy in that pink dress hover in the background.

Landesman cross-cuts between police offices, the hospital, Zaprudder’s office and the motel at which assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s deluded mother is staying. There is a poignant sequence in which Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale) meets his brother (Jeremy Strong.) All that Lee Harvey Oswald can think to talk about is that his daughter needs new shoes.

We learn that the Secret Agents had to rip up the seats in Air Force One to make space for Kennedy’s coffin. (They couldn’t bear to have it stored in the hold as if it was just another piece of luggage.) We see the bitter dispute between the Dallas coroner, who wants to do an autopsy, and the secret agents desperate to get Kennedy’s body back to Washington. There is a reconstruction of Lee Harvey Oswald’s own funeral at which photographers acted as pall bearers because there were no other mourners. 

We see FBI agent James Hosty destroying evidence of Oswald’s communications with the FBI. All this background detail is fine but seems inconsequential given the magnitude of the event at the heart of the film, namely Kennedy’s death. It doesn’t help, either, that with so many characters flitting in and out of the film, there is no time to develop any of them in any depth.

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