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JFK assassination drama fails to live up to its promise

By Cary Darling
(Fort Worth) Star-Telegram
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    ‘Parkland’

    C+ CAST: Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton, James Badge Dale, Paul Giamatti.

    DIRECTOR: Peter Landesman.

    RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes.

    RATING: PG-13 (bloody sequences of ER trauma procedures, some violent images, strong language, smoking throughout).



Ambition is usually a good thing in moviemaking. But “Parkland,” set partly in Dallas’ Parkland Hospital in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, may be the rare movie that’s actually too ambitious for its own good.

The film follows several narrative strands, people who were personally affected by what happened in Dealey Plaza that fateful day: emergency-room doctors, federal agents, Abraham Zapruder (who filmed the infamous footage of the assassination) and the family of Lee Harvey Oswald, particularly his brother, Robert. But the approach is somewhat scattershot, keeping viewers from ever getting too involved with any of the characters.

That’s too bad, because there are some good performances in “Parkland.” The topic is intrinsically intriguing, especially since this November marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder. And the film also nails the early ’60s era and provides a fascinating glimpse of what North Texas was like a half-century ago.

“Parkland,” which was actually filmed mostly in Austin, opens with archival footage of JFK in Fort Worth on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, a few hours before his trip to Dallas. As the clock ticks toward noon, we’re introduced to the Parkland doctors – including Malcolm Perry (Colin Hanks) and newbie Jim Carrico (a not particularly convincing Zac Efron). Across town, Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) – camera in hand – is excitedly getting ready for a glimpse of the president. On the other hand, Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale) is busying himself at work, while news of Kennedy’s visit blares on the radio.

Meanwhile, agents like James Hosty (Ron Livingston), in the midst of a city that had expressed some hostile anti-Kennedy sentiment, are on the lookout for trouble. The paths of several of these characters will cross in the chaos – expertly staged using a combination of existing and new footage – that follows the assassination of JFK and subsequently the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.

Of these, the most involving is Robert Oswald who, according to the script from director-writer Peter Landesman (making his feature-film debut), found himself trapped between his murderous brother and delusional mother who thought Lee Harvey should have been treated like a hero. Robert just wanted to live his life under the radar, and then he finds himself squarely in the crosshairs, with the hate of a nation raining down on his head. Dale’s character and performance are among the best in the film. We feel his pain as he has to beg members of the press covering Lee Harvey’s funeral to act as pallbearers because there was no one else to do it.

The other most affecting moments involve Zapruder. Giamatti gives a quietly compelling, sad-eyed performance as a Kennedy supporter who finds his world – and his privacy – turned upside down when everyone wants to get their hands on his graphic and tragic footage.

Unfortunately, some of the other characters – including Billy Bob Thornton as a tough-talking federal agent and Marcia Gay Harden as a nurse – come and go without leaving much of an impression.

That’s too bad, because there is a lot of promise in “Parkland.” Landesman aimed for an epic and came up short. If only he would have tried to capture something more intimate and lasting.

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