Like Jason's Facebook Page

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Parkland, Not Your Average Kennedy Film

Parkland, directed by Peter Landesman

I'd only seen a few glimpses of this movie in the last week; a small display at Wal-Mart, part of a commercial during a football game.  I had no idea what it was about.  But I saw right away that Paul Giamatti and Billy Bob Thornton were in it and I had that funny feeling that this was one of those sleeper films that would turn out to be a real gem.  When my son and I went looking for a movie to watch (simply to have an excuse to make nachos and chill out for the night) we found Parkland listed in the pay-per-view queue.  Discovering that it involved the Kennedy assassination, we decided to give it a try.  Honestly, there wasn't much else that looked interesting.

It turns out I was right.  This was definitely a gem.  To start with, the cast was very impressive.  In addition to Giamatti and Thornton, who both turn in strong performances, there were plenty of other cast members who caught my eye.

James Badge Dale turns in a stronger than usual performance as Robert Oswald, brother of the infamous shooter.  Dale, who had the early distinction as Jack Bauer's partner in season two of 24, works his role with understatement, as if he is sleepwalking through the nightmare that hits his family when it is announced his brother has shot the President.  That's not an insult.  He does it well, allowing us to see the unfolding tragedy that overtakes his average life.

I've always liked Ron Livingston since his tour of duty on Band of Brothers.  Here he plays Federal Agent James Hosty, and he brings his world-weary persona to a role that was a pleasant surprise.  Hosty is a bit of a cynic, but he hasn't given up.  He is still in the game, working leads, and trying to make some sense out of the crazy guys in the world like Lee Harvey Oswald, a man he's been tracking simply because he was a real mess.  That his guy ends up killing the President leaves Hosty defensive, confused, and ultimately in some very hot water.  Livingston is well cast in this role, and I only wished his role had been expanded.

Macia Gay Harden in Parkland
Marcia Gay Harden takes a very small role here, but her presence is palpable despite the fact she is mostly a bystander in the hospital, responding to the shock of the President's bloody arrival by clinging to her role as head nurse, executing her duties as if she were attending a king in his court, instead of a patient in an emergency room.  I can't hardly remember any of her lines, but her eyes were saying enough every time the camera focuses on her, which is what this movie is really all about; watching as events overtake everyone in the room.

Other cast members fill out this film with similar understated performances; Zac Efron, Glenn Morshower (another 24 veteran), and Colin Hanks.  But really I could list most of the actors involved in this movie.  So many of them had small, nameless parts, passing in and out of scenes as needed by the script, having few lines but lending their emotional weight to every scene.  And that's what makes this film unique.  The dialog is not the focus of this story.  Often, the action carries through without dialog, save for the chatter that crowds around an emergency.

Landesman is to be praised for his approach to a story that has been seen too many times before.  He is well aware that we know the story.  He's not trying to tell us what happened to John F. Kennedy that day.  What he wants us to do is take a trip with him away from the main event.  Yes, the events we all expect to see are there in the movie, but do you really see them?  They are always off to one side; a reflection in someone's glasses, a noise off to the left, a blur of action to the right.  It's okay.  We already know what's going on.  We know Jackie is hit with spatter from Kennedy's wound.  We know she inexplicably crawls out onto the trunk.  But Landesman wants us to look away from all of that, and see what is happening around this historically momentous event.

Why?  Because everywhere you look, you see people who are deeply affected by this horrendous attack.  We tend to forget that violence was not so prevalent in our visual horizons back then.  The Vietnam War had not yet invaded our living rooms.  And Kennedy, a young, exciting leader with terrific charisma, was not only cut down with a rifle, he was murdered on live television, an act that left so much of the nation shocked and as off-balanced at Jackie climbing onto the back of that convertible.  And that's what makes Parkland something special to watch.  Landesman takes one of the most sensational historical moments of the last century and reminds us that it had real emotional impact on the people caught up in the middle of it.

We've allowed conspiracy theories to cloud our perception of that day.  Mention the Kennedy killing and most people will pause, take on a thoughtful expression, and say "you know, I don't think we'll ever really know what happened that day," or "I'm pretty sure I can guess who paid Oswald to do it."  The puzzle of it fascinates us and long ago we learned to ignore the sheer tragedy of the moment.

Paul Giamatti in Parkland
Not Landesman.  He doesn't even begin to nod in the direction of a conspiracy.  If you want that, go see Stone's JFK.  You won't get any of that foolishness here.  What you'll get is an idea of how this impacted our people.  Giamatti, taking on the role of amateur film-maker Abraham Zapruder, really brings this point into 8MM color focus.  As he's filming, giddy at the chance to see his President, we hear him gasp in shock as the bullets hit.  He continues to film, caught up in the moment.  When he finally drops the camera and stumbles away, he is nearly sick to his stomach, overcome with grief.  It is an important moment.  I felt as if the director were reminding me that I can't just be a voyeur at this killing.  He wants us to be more than that.  Because at that moment, our nation was staggering from a tremendously powerful blow.  And instead of obsessing over convoluted theories, we too, should be staggering from this blow.  

I was tempted to think he'd gone overboard, watching secret service men and cops and admirals who were overcome with emotion, tears in their eyes, losing their comportment.  But I was reminded of what my mother told me.  She told the story of how she and my father sat on the steps of her parents' house and wondered if the world was coming to an end and how they decided right then to go ahead and get married, since no one could be sure of anything any more.

Parkland keeps its focus on this emotional trauma, though it never blinds us with it.  Yes, there is that macabre scene when Jackie is discovered in the emergency room with hands cupped, still cradling what bits of her husband's skull and brains she had been able to save.  But this isn't a sensational moment.  After all, this is long after Kennedy arrived at the hospital, after the doctors and nurses had done everything to save him.  After they had lost their battle.  You realize with sympathetic admiration that Jackie has been holding this the entire time.  These are stories we've heard before, but it is sobering to see it in the context of all that happened that day.

If you are any sort of casual history-buff, you won't see anything you didn't already know.  But when it is put all together, you get a clearer picture of that day in Dallas, and it is well worth taking a little trip back in time.  I was especially impressed by a little scene that involved the President's casket and Air Force One.  Keep an eye out for it; a perfect demonstration of the passion and confusion that must have overcome so many professionals that day.

No comments:

Post a Comment