November 22, 2013

Fifty Years Later, PARKLAND Plays The Assassination Of JFK In A Minor Key

"I filmed a murder."
Since I'm from Boston, I guess it goes without saying that I'm a big fan of the Kennedys.  Full disclosure: a few members of the family went to my high school (as did Teddy back in the day) and Mike Kennedy, whose father Michael died in a tragic skiing accident our freshman year, was a member of my graduating class.  I certainly wouldn't say we were friends so much as we were friendly - I think we played freshman soccer together and we were in one or two of the same classes, but that's about it.  Though even before I had ever met a Kennedy, I was already familiar with the legends.  This is a family of folk heroes, respected across the country and downright beloved in their home state of Massachusetts where even the cloud of a possible manslaughter isn't enough to deter the public from voting them into office.

Conspiracy theories absolutely fascinate me and the JFK assassination is pretty much the brass ring of American historical puzzles.  In the case of something like the supposed alien crash at Roswell,* I think the compelling factor is not necessarily the idea of the government cover up, but instead the idea of conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial life.  It's one of those big "what if" questions that humanity has pondered for as long as we've properly grasped the structure of the universe and that will continue to fill our dreams and imaginations until the day comes that we make finally first contact.  But because alien life is still such an unknown (Would they look anything like us?  Would they be bellicose or benevolent?) it still feels like more of a curiosity, an amorphous idea upon which everyone can imprint their own values or beliefs.  The JFK assassination is different because Kennedy wasn't just a known quantity, he was rock star, a pop culture icon that captured the hearts and minds of the American public.  He was polarizing to be sure and there were plenty of people out there who outright hated the guy, but that only added to his mystique.  Either way, he certainly wasn't someone who inspired ambivalence and that kind of public loss demands an explanation.  Sadly, the subsequent death of Oswald robbed America of those answers, leaving behind so many unknowns that the mystery of that day has endured for half a century.

The violent and unexpected murder of someone as inspirational as Kennedy, whether you're a White House staffer or the owner of a local dress shop, is shocking to say the least and potentially traumatic if you had the misfortune to actually witness the event and/or its immediate aftermath.  That's the focus of Parkland, an ensemble drama which follows those left in the wake of the President's death in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.  There's the swarm of Secret Service agents and presidential aides, the doctors at nearby Parkland Hospital, the Oswald family, the local FBI office that could have arrested Oswald days before, and finally Abraham Zapruder, the man who happened to be filming the Presidential motorcade when shots rang out from the Texas Book Depository.  The film has an absolutely stacked cast and it seemed like Jamie and I spent the whole first half hour saying, "Hey it's that guy!"  Seriously, at one point Jackie Earl Haley showed up as a hospital priest who blesses the body and then walks away, never to be seen again.  At a certain point, the whole thing started to feel disorienting and seriously threatened to pull me out of drama of the story itself.  Is that Tom Welling as a Secret Service agent?  What's Mark Duplass doing in this movie?  Oh, hi Rory Cochrane!  What's happening again?  Oh.  Right.

I love the idea of focusing on the ancillary figures of that day while folks like Jackie and Lyndon Johnson remain out of focus or partially out of frame.  Sadly, the film suffers from the biggest potential trap of most ensemble dramas, namely that the glut of characters causes the film to spread itself too thin across the various storylines until none of them really pop to command your attention.    The emergency room scenes are well executed and appropriately intense because of the circumstances, but I don't really care about any of the hospital staff.  The same goes for the Secret Service agents who rush LBJ to Air Force One and then have to find an appropriate place for the casket as well as the local FBI agents grappling with their own innocent mistake.  It's the Zapruder and Oswald stories that offer the only truly engaging character work.  To be honest, Zapruder's story isn't even all that interesting, but Paul Giamatti is so damn good in the role that you almost don't notice that his entire plot consists of developing a role of film.

The Oswald stuff really stands apart, due mostly to the great work by Jacki Weaver as Lee Harvey's mother Margueritte and James Badge Dale as his brother Robert. (When  is Dale is gonna graduate from incredible supporting actor to carrying his own movie?  I think it's time.)  Margueritte always maintained that her son was actually a secret agent acting under orders from the U.S. government, and whether she truly believed it or simply clung to that explanation in order to cope with Oswald's horrific act is never really addressed.  Regardless of your interpretation, Weaver's steely determination suggests a woman who refuses to be done in by her seemingly tenuous grip on reality.  But your heart really goes out to Bob Oswald, a nice guy who is equal parts shocked and angered and then, before he can properly wrap his head around his own emotions, watches as his brother is gunned down in a police station on national television.  Oswald had no pallbearers and there was no church service because nobody wanted to take the body, a drama we saw play out again this year following the death of one of the two Boston Marathon bombers.  You just can't help but sympathize with the Robert Oswald, as any of us could suddenly be thrust into the same situation without warning.  How would you handle it if someone close to you suddenly committed a horrifying act of violence?  Do you renounce them?  Do you try to understand and perhaps even forgive?  These are the questions plaguing the families of James Holmes and the Tsarnaev brothers, and I hope I never have to answer them myself.

I was in a large meeting at work yesterday and one of the presenters asked how many people in the audience remembered exactly where they were when President Kennedy was shot.  Only two people raised their hands, which surprised me since, at the ripe old age of 30, I'm generally on the younger end of the employee spectrum.  The number of people who can answer that question is only going down and thankfully we haven't seen the successful assassination of a U.S. President in the 50 years since JFK.  I find that to be a rather miraculous fact and I'd be lying if I said I haven't spent the past five years quietly preparing myself for the news that some bigoted asshole has attempted/succeeded in killing Barack Obama for being a Socialist Muslim Hitler.  Anger and vitriol on both sides of the political aisle continues to bubble over each and every day, as evidenced by yesterday's Senate debate, where the adoption of simply majority rule was labeled "the nuclear option."  But even if we are lucky enough to dodge the literal bullet of an assassin's rifle for another 50 years, we will continue to rack up plenty of those "where were you then?" moments.  For me, (so far) it's 9/11 and the Marathon Bombing.  For my kids?  I shudder to think.  But at least for all those moments of tragedy, there are also moments of joy and I look forward to telling my children about seeing the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years as well as the election of this country's first African American President.

And so today my thoughts are with the entire Kennedy family.  JFK is one of my very favorite Presidents along with FDR, Lincoln, Clinton and Obama.  (What can I say, I have a type.)  While I wish I could have been alive to see Jack in his prime, I'd rather he was alive today so that I wouldn't have to write this piece.



*Some would also include the veracity of the moon landing here, but those people are crazy people.  It happened.  Science says so.

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Title: Parkland
Director: Peter Landesman
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, James Badge Dale, Jacki Weaver, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass, Tom Welling, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Jackie Earl Haley, Jeremy Strong
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Redbox DVD