Parkland (and JFK)
Special to The History Place
Next month we’ll observe the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Newsreel footage from the first few weeks following his death reveal that even then many Americans questioned the official explanation that a lone gunman killed their president. In the ensuing five decades competing conspiracy theories have abounded. Suspects include the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ, the Mafia, Castro, Anti-Castro Cubans, and the KGB. Estimates of the number of published books on the subject range between one and two thousand, depending upon the source.
In 2007, Attorney/Author Vincent Bugliosi, who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson and then co-authored the best-seller on the case, Helter Skelter, tried to turn the juggernaut of conspiracy theories around with his massive (1600 page) tome, Reclaiming History. Despite its scrupulous and fastidious sifting of the facts from the fiction, the book was immediately attacked by authors whose reputations rested on their contrary conclusions.
Parkland gives Bugliosi a second bite at the apple. Based on his book, the film is a straightforward, frequently moving, account of the assassination through the eyes of a Dallas Secret Service agent (Billy Bob Thornton), a Parkland Hospital physician (Zac Efron), Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), whose 22-second, 8mm home movie is the only complete photographic record of the murder, and the Oswald family: Lee (Jeremy Strong), his mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver), and brother Bob (James Badge Dale).
I found two main problems with Parkland. First, it’s exceptionally hard to find. In suburban Philadelphia, within a week after opening in a handful of theaters, that number had dropped to just one. My assumption is that it’s the same across the country.
Second, trying to do this epic tale justice entails too many story lines. When Bugliosi’s book was released six years ago, the publisher (W.W. Norton) wisely also issued a 400-page extract, Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which covered only the events immediately before, during, and after the killing. That, essentially, is Parkland, too. And it’s still a lot to cover in a film of only 93 minutes.
By contrast, Oliver Stone has released in video a 205-minute director’s cut of his controversial 1991 film JFK. Stone’s epic attempt has generated nearly as much controversy as Kennedy’s assassination itself. The film was under attack by adherents of the lone-gunman theory before the movie had even premiered. Stone parried opponents’ every thrust, responding to articles in major magazines and newspapers with surprising vigor. Ultimately, the footnoted/annotated film script was published, along with hundreds of articles, reviews and Stone's responses in a large paperback volume that remains in print.
JFK was a bit bloated in 1991 at 189 minutes and is a bulbous balloon at three hours and 25 minutes. Stone throws everything into his boiling pot, except his kitchen sink. Starting out with Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address in which he famously warned us about the power of the “military industrial complex,” we wind up with LBJ, the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, the Mob, anti-Castro Cubans, Earl Warren, and a purely fictional Deep Throat character, all working like so many hands in so many gloves to kill Kennedy and then bury the story so deep that New Orleans DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner, hot off of Dances with Wolves) can never dig up the truth.
Therein, to paraphrase Hamlet, lies the problem: the Kennedy assassination is an historical incident of enormous complexity, even as historical incidents go. Whether one sides with Bugliosi and his lone-gunman position or swings with Stone and his gumbo of conspiracy theories, the cast of characters is large and unwieldy. The documentary record is incomplete, still partially classified, and most certainly confusing. Many men had motives for wanting Kennedy killed. Many aspects of the murder–such as Kennedy’s backward head-snap when he’s hit by the fatal shot–lend themselves to conflicting interpretations.
Neither Parkland nor the re-cut JFK, nor a close comparison of the two, will provide viewers with a satisfactory solution to what JFK’s David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) called “a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.”
And, frankly, as films, neither gives me much satisfaction. Despite some fine acting in both cinematic versions of the greatest mystery of the American Century, both come off as confusing and not a little tedious in my opinion.
Rated PG-13 for bloody sequences of ER trauma procedures, some violent images and language, and smoking throughout.
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Jim Castagnera is the author of 19 books. His latest is Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom