The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK is upon us, which should lead to a whole bunch of television specials in the days and weeks ahead. 'Parkland', however, is the only significant dramatic presentation that has been put together to mark the anniversary, and – given some of the releases we've seen in the past, most notably Oliver Stone's 1991 film, JFK – 'Parkland' seems rather mild in comparison. While Stone's movie was packed to the edges with conspiracy theories, there's barely a hint to be found in 'Parkland', as the film is more about the impact of the assassination on others than it is trying to build a theory of what exactly transpired (although there's a touch of that as well). If anything, this movie is the antithesis of Stone's film.
The story behind how 'Parkland' came to be a movie is almost as interesting as the events in the film itself. Based on Vincent Bugliosi's conspiracy-debunking book 'Four Days in November' (which is an abbreviated version of his much-longer book 'Reclaiming History'), producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman originally envisioned a much longer mini-series, which was supposed to be produced for HBO. Had that idea happened, the proposed project would have starred Bill Paxton and focused much more on the conspiracy aspect of the assassination. HBO eventually passed on the project (perhaps because of the anti-conspiracy slant, although we'll never know for sure), and the Hanks/Goetzman team instead decided to whittle down their larger idea into a smaller film that would just focus in and around the events immediately following the assassination. 'Parkland' is the result.
One of the things I have to give 'Parkland' credit for is its ability to show the shock and grief in Dallas on that November day of 1963, without sensationalizing the assassination itself. Thanks in large part to Stone's movie, Americans are well aware of what Abraham Zapruder's 8mm film shows. In Parkland, we never see a crystal clear version of the headshot. Instead, the camera stays locked on Zapruder's (played by Paul Giamatti) reaction as the President is murdered. Later in the movie, when he gets the film developed, we only see it in the reflection of the glasses being worn by onlookers.
Parkland, of course, is the name of the hospital that both JFK and, later, Lee Oswald himself were taken to following their respective shootings. However, the characters we meet (everyone in 'Parkland' is based on a real-life person – there are no amalgamations here) at the hospital are some of the most thinly drawn in the entire film. We're supposed to feel something for young resident doctor Charles 'Jim' Carrico (Zac Efron), as he finds himself in the position of trying to save Kennedy's life, but the viewer knows so little about his character (a victim of the cutting-room floor, no doubt), it's hard to relate to him, nor a nurse played by Marcia Gay Harden.
More well-rounded are the characters of lead secret service agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) and FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston). Both men have spent their careers serving their country, and both must now face the fact that they missed something that might have saved the President's life – Sorrels in his assigned protection, and Hosty in the fact that Oswald was one of the people under investigation by him in the days prior to the assassination. Both the real-life people and the actors playing them are so interesting, a single movie focusing on them would be quite interesting to watch. However, most viewers will leave 'Parkland' feeling that they didn't quite learn enough about either of the men – which is the major problem for most of the characters we run across in the movie.
The most fascinating person in the movie is one that very few assassination materials (be they film or text) have devoted much time to: Robert Oswald, Lee's older brother. Played here by James Badge Dale, there's no denying that this is the best performance and one of the most interesting characters in the entire movie. Robert, of course, has never gotten much in terms of press before (although he did publish a book and appear in several interviews over the years) because – unlike his mother, Marguerite (Jackie Weaver), who thought Lee was a spy for the U.S. government – he had nothing to do with the events and never doubted his brother's guilt (not a good source for conspiracy theorists to latch onto). In 'Parkland', we see how the events in Dallas totally changed Robert's life and people's opinion of him. It made me think of the controversial line in Stone's movie that asked "Who mourns for Lee Harvey Oswald?", when the real question should have been "Who mourns for Robert Oswald?" Maybe his portrayal here will give him some sense of peace (Robert, by the way, is alive and well at the age of 84 at the time of this writing).
In addition to putting the focus on the people above, 'Parkland' also covers some lesser-known events surround the assassination – such as the 'it would be comical if it weren't so tragic' efforts to find room for JFK's coffin aboard Air Force One so they didn't have to put it into the cargo hold. The movie also doesn't shy away from the general attitude the city of Dallas had about the President in 1963, nor the knowledge of the Secret Service of that fact. "What a shitty place to die," one agent states outside the hospital at one point in the film.
What 'Parkland' lacks in sensationalism it makes up for in strong performances. The phrase 'we've seen this movie before' applies pretty strongly here, but considering how easy it would have been to throw some conspiracy theories into the film and perhaps get a lot more public attention for the movie, I have to give the filmmakers credit for sticking to the known facts. There are no new answers or revelations in 'Parkland', but this movie isn't about who killed JFK or why. It's about how one killing could have such a profound effect on so many different people, both known and unknown to the victim.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Parkland' comes to Blu-ray in a standard keepcase with a matching slipcover. The case holds the single-layer 25GB Blu-ray disc, with no inserts. The disc itself is front-loaded with trailers for The Iceman, '1' (a Formula 1 racing documentary), 'As I Lay Dying', Killing Season, and 'Plush'. The menu consists of a video montage of footage from the movie in the middle right of the screen, bordered by production stills of the cast, which morph into other characters as the menu proceeds. Selections are along the bottom of the screen.
In addition to this Blu-ray release, a DVD-only version is available, as is a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.
'Parkland' is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and looks pretty good on Blu-ray. The movie was shot digitally using Arri Alexa cameras, providing for a nice, crisp image with no evident signs of aliasing or artifacting. The movie is shot with a lot of blues and grays, and just ever so slightly drained of color, which gives 'Parkland' a historical feel to it, as well as the proper tone for the proceedings. There are some bright whites early in the movie (in Dealey Plaza) that come off nicely without any issues, and shadow delineation is solid in some of the film's darker scenes. Fleshtones are well-balanced and mostly consistent throughout. There's a scene with Robert Oswald, his mother and a few agents late in the movie in a hotel room that comes off just a bit oversaturated (thanks to the color scheme of the room), but otherwise this is a good-looking presentation.
The English 5.1 TrueHD track is almost always active throughout the movie, but not as noticeable as one might expect. With all the events going on in 'Parkland', the presentation takes a rather somber tone overall, so viewers get much more of a dialogue-heavy drama than they do an action film. I didn't notice a lot going on in terms of directionality or immersiveness, and the rear speakers are really only noticeable when the musical score kicks in, or when the characters are in a particularly crowded room (like the Dallas FBI offices). Balance, however, is quite good, and the background noises and music never drown out what the actors are saying.
In addition to the 5.1 TrueHD track, a 2.0 Stereo track is also an option. Subtitles are available in both English SDH and Spanish.
Overall, there's really not much new about the Kennedy assassination to add after 50 years, and when a movie like 'Parkland' sticks to the facts and avoids any conspiracy theories, I'm not sure the result is worth adding to one's collection. Still, the performances are strong enough here to recommend at least one viewing. Rent it.