'Parkland' Review: The Footnotes of History Get a Starring Role

'Parkland,' a film about JFK's assassination, is overwhelmed by its ensemble cast.

James Badge Dale as Robert Oswald and Jacki Weaver as Marguerite Oswald in "Parkland."
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About midway through "Parkland," Robert Oswald, brother of accused killer Lee Harvey Oswald, sits in an interrogation room with his mother, appalled that she seems more concerned about negotiating a book deal than she is about the fate of Lee.

"It's my story too," she explains coldly.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is just about everybody's story in "Parkland" – the doctors and nurses who try to save him, the authorities who failed to keep him safe, the parade bystanders who were witnesses to his death and, of course, the family of the man who shot him. But whatever story "Parkland" is trying to tell about a Texas community disrupted by a national tragedy never fully emerges from the medley of personal tales jumbled together according to the timeline of Kennedy's death.

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"Parkland" begins hours before Kennedy's arrival in Dallas, jumping around the various locations that would soon be consumed by the day's madness. We are formally introduced to some of the names and faces that are usually confined to the footnotes of history. The level of awareness and enthusiasm about the president's visit varies from character to character, but none of them know that it will be his last.

"Parkland" doesn't take too much time to lay out the groundwork, though, and once the fatal shots ring out it never slows down, unfolding over the course of that day and the three that came next.

We follow the Kennedy entourage to Parkland Hospital, where a young, handsome doctor (Zac Efron) and a stern nurse (Marcia Gay Harden) desperately try to keep the president alive. A veteran secret service agent (Billy Bob Thornton) and his team scramble to find out whatever they can about the assassination, eventually connecting with a nervous reporter (Paul Giamatti), who has recorded the entire shooting on his new-fangled Super 8 camera. Meanwhile, an FBI chief (David Harbour) uncovers what an underling (Ron Livingston) did and didn't know about the chief suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong), and Oswald's brother, Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), and mother, Marguerite Oswald, (Jacki Weaver) realize they will forever be tied to a national tragedy.

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Based on Vince Bugliosi's book "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy," "Parkland" captures the action in an abrupt, jittery manner. Director Peter Landesman relies on shaky camera-work, an out-of-focus lens, and other cinematography tricks -- sometimes all at the same time -- to underscore the chaos. The scenes that work best are the ones with conflict, as when a Dallas corner and the Secret Service start a turf war in the emergency room or when the characters struggle to get Kennedy's coffin loaded into Air Force One. Other characters and storylines, however, never really assert their importance to the film.

When it comes to showing the film's best-known historical figures, "Parkland" waffles on how much to reveal. The character of John F. Kennedy is handled deftly enough, using Brett Stimely (who has played JFK before) as a body double. But, with the first lady's character, "Parkland" goes to such extremes to conceal actress Kat Steffens' face – letting the back of her brunette bob and pink pill box hat float around like a ghost – that, once the film does reveal it, you wonder why they didn't just show her to begin with. The film is a little more willing to commit to Sean McGraw as Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, but still insists, needlessly, on keeping him out of the main frame.

"Parkland" would have benefited from editing down its ensemble, so the stronger characters and their concerns could fully form. By the end, the Oswald family emerges as the most fascinating focus; perhaps the film would have benefited had they been at the center of the drama rather than just among the mess. Instead "Parkland" feels like a selection of diary entries that were randomly reassembled and brought to life by some very big-name actors -- and turns out to be much less than the sum of its parts.