There's a quick clip in Parkland of David Brinkley, the NBC news anchor, looking into the camera on Nov. 22, 1963, and noting in the somberest of tones, "What has happened today has been just too much, too ugly, and too fast."
He was speaking of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There are other archival elements to Peter Landesman's depressing reenactment film: Walter Cronkite's shaken commentary on CBS, news footage of the president and first lady stepping off the plane onto the Love Field tarmac, a charming fund-raising appearance by the 35th president just hours before his motorcade wound its fateful way toward Dallas' Dealey Plaza. But packaged all around these authentic bits of record is a bunch of actors trying very hard to recreate the chaos, confusion, and devastation of that day in Dallas, and the events of the ensuing weekend.
Based on Vincent Bugliosi's book Four Days in November, which reconstructs the assassination and its aftermath, Parkland shows how doctors at Parkland Hospital responded when the bloody, skull-shattered body of the president was wheeled in. It shows how agents in the regional office of the FBI bungled an investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald in the weeks before his sniper attack. It shows how Abraham Zapruder climbed atop a plinth along the motorcade route to film the president with a newfangled 8mm movie camera - the footage from which would become a chilling piece of history.
The film shows Oswald's mother responding to the news of what her son had done. Likewise, his brother, who worked for a brick company and heard his family name on the radio.
Parkland lines up an interesting, earnest troupe: Zac Efron as Charles "Jim" Carrico, the inexperienced hospital resident on call when Kennedy was rushed in; Marcia Gay Harden as an attendant nurse; Paul Giamatti as Zapruder; Ron Livingston as a seemingly hapless FBI guy; Billy Bob Thornton as the head of the Dallas branch of the Secret Service; Jacki Weaver as Marguerite Oswald, the assassin's loony mom; and Jackie Earle Haley as the priest who administered last rites in the operating room. There is a flurry of Texas Rangers and Dallas police, news reporters and Secret Service agents, and glimpses of Jackie Kennedy with her husband's blood and brain matter on her clothes.
Parkland, pokey and telescopic, succeeds in demonstrating how ill-prepared everybody was for the cataclysmic events of the day, and the days that followed. The film paints a portrait of a bleak, hellish place, and of people who were not the brightest bulbs.
And so what? There are no heroes here, and no inspiration to be found in the hospital halls, the office buildings, the police stations, on the streets.
Parkland is history as existential despair.
Parkland **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Peter Landesman. With Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Ron Livingston, Billy Bob Thornton, and Paul Giamatti. Distributed by Exclusive Media.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters