By ALAN SWERDLOW
Parkland / Directed by Peter Landesman / PG13
As I’m sure you’re well aware, last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. If you were anywhere near a newspaper or television you could hardly miss it, since the media (perhaps I should have capitalised that – The Media) reached saturation point and had a field day. Any number of documentaries were produced, some tired old evaluations were trotted out along with tired new evaluations, and whole new generations of conspiracy theorists sprang up like so much khakibos after a Highveld rainstorm.
I even caught a screening of Oliver Stone’s JFK on late night telly, which does creak so now – not so much Heart Of Darkness as Heart Of Chemically-Induced Paranoia. I’m still uncertain as to whether the multiple broadcasts of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy rendition of Happy Birthday, Mr President were intended as breath-taking post-modern irony or were simply an insensitive gaffe. Yet the events 22 November, 1963, still fascinate.
One of the more sober works produced for the anniversary is Parkland, written and directed by Peter Landesman, making his feature film debut (his previous work has been in the realm of documentaries), with Tom Hanks on board as producer. It’s an account of three days in that fateful November: the immediate lead up to the cavalcade through Dallas and Dealey Plaza and the two days subsequent to the assassination.
That’s all – and what’s more, it concentrates on the figures on the sidelines, the doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital, the Secret Service drones and the FBI operatives, Abraham Zapruder (whose unintentional footage of the moment of assassination is still being analysed frame by frame) , and Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother, a hardworking clerk at a Dallas business.
This switch of focus from the actual historical events to the reactions to the events is what gives Parkland much of its strength and grace. When Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins (which tackles the issue of why so many assassinations occur in the United States) was staged at the Donmar Warehouse in London, he was asked to provide an additional song especially for that production. Sondheim came up with Something Just Broke. It catalogues the responses to the perennial question, “Where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been shot?”, and is sung by characters identified simply as Housewife, Schoolteacher, Farmer and Clerk. Sondheim says the song had a negative response in the US in subsequent revivals, but he regards it now as absolutely vital to the meaning of the show.
Parkland was not well received in the US, and I think it was for the same reasons. The film is essentially about small, personal responses and not the grand sweep of history nor wild surmise or crackpot theorising. I think those who turn to conspiracy theories cannot assimilate the true horror that terrible things happen for no reason at all, and what we see as this film progresses are individuals computing the after-effects on a very personal level. Landesman’s film is sober, restrained, cool (who remembers one of the great films of the Sixties, Medium Cool?) and measured. He has a knockout cast including Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Zac Efron (yes, as a young houseman on duty at the hospital when Kennedy is brought in), Jackie Earle Haley, and Paul Giammati giving his best performance to date as the anguished Abraham Zapruder.
Landesman captures a marvellous image by focusing the camera on Zapruder at the moment Kennedy is hit (we do see the footage later, but obliquely). Instead it is as if Zapruder is struck by the bullet, but he carries on filming. Marcia Gay Harden also has a splendid reaction when her character – head nurse in Emergency at Parkland – realises that Oswald’s body is headed for the same treatment room that housed Kennedy. Likewise, though we do see some documentary footage of Kennedy’s State Funeral, Landesman is at his most effective detailing the events of Oswald’s burial. He’s not shy either, to portray Oswald’s mother as the baroque grotesque she is reputed to have been and ultimately, the most moving performance comes from James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey’s brother Robert, a man who simply tries to keep breathing as his world implodes.
At this time of hysterical (and utterly distasteful) near prurience over the trial of Oscar Pistorius, I fear that Parkland won’t find much favour with the South African public because of its restraint, but when it comes to considered, rational and intelligent film-making, it checked most of the boxes in my book.