A few years ago, famed attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who had previously written books about the Charles Manson trial (which he prosecuted himself) and the O.J. Simpson trial, delivered what he hoped would be the definitive work on the JFK assassination. Over the course of 1,600-plus increasingly exasperated pages, Reclaiming History makes the case that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy, and that he wasn’t part of any conspiracy in doing so. To set the stage, as it were, Bugliosi devotes the first 319 pages of this massive tome to a detailed timeline of November 22-25, 1963; a separate, smaller book, Four Days In November, includes the timeline only. It’s this moment-by-moment account that forms the basis of Parkland, named for the Dallas hospital that received the mortally wounded bodies of both Kennedy and Oswald over those four days.
The film’s convoluted provenance is worth noting, because Four Days In November, though published as a stand-alone volume, was intended as meticulous throat clearing—a recitation of facts that would then be used to build and buttress an argument. As facts alone, they’re of moderate interest at best, and Parkland huffs and puffs in a mostly futile effort to wrest some drama from them. Tossing many key events aside (murdered police officer J.D. Tippit, for example, is completely ignored), the film focuses on the Parkland doctors and nurses (played by Zac Efron and Marcia Gay Harden, among others); Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), whose home-movie footage of the shooting remains the clearest record of what happened; FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), who’d received a threatening letter from Oswald not long before the assassination and subsequently covered it up; and Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), understandably stunned and heartbroken to discover that it was his own brother who pulled the trigger.
Including Robert Oswald is the movie’s rather shameless attempt to provide some “heart,” and while Dale gives the movie’s most compelling performance (not counting a riveting single-scene appearance by a little-known actor named Jeremy Strong, who absolutely nails Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrogant disaffection), his confusion and anguish feel manipulative in this context. Likewise, most of the big moments are whiffs—first-time director Peter Landesman’s choice to depict the assassination itself via a tight close-up on Zapruder, eyes bulging with shock and alarm as he pans his Bell & Howell Zoomatic from left to right, is a real howler. Parkland works best at its most phlegmatically procedural, depicting the hassle involved in finding a place right now to develop a roll of 8mm film, or the Secret Service unbolting a row of seats from Air Force One to make room for Kennedy’s coffin. As vicarious, you-are-there re-creations of historical events go, it’s creditably workmanlike; whether that’s the best use of the dream factory is another matter.