For many people, John F. Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago was a kind of pre-9/11 experience, an iconic moment. The famous question, “Where were you when JFK was shot?” subsequently became associated with other figures like Elvis and Princess Diana etc., but he was the first.
The four dark days of his death and its immediate aftermath are captured with great dignity in Parkland, which is the name of the hospital where he died. It was also the hospital in which his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died a few days later.
In sometimes graphic detail, the film gives us an entry into both operating theatres as the blood-spattered bodies of the dying men – victim and villain – are wheeled in on stretchers and operated upon…unsuccessfully.
Clearly, both scenes are exponentially different but what’s the same is the look of shock on the faces of the doctors and nurses, and indeed the Secret Service men. And of course Jacqueline, his widow.
She’s played by Kat Steffens, who doesn’t have quite the same resemblance to the real Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as Jeremy Strong does to Oswald. (This is a short but fascinating performance by Strong, managing to convey both his remorselessness and mischievous edge). Director Peter Landesman compensates for this by focusing on Jackie’s pink costume and her flick-out hairstyle, or by shooting her from distance or from behind.
Everything about the film shows great meticulousness. Before the assassination there’s an atmosphere of ominousness and foreboding. Afterwards this changes to silent horror and bewilderment, broken by some sharp scenes of shouting or cacophony. The balance is always just right to capture the mood.
For me this is the film of the year so far. Like many people, I found Oliver Stone’s JFK more hysterical than historical. Landesman steers away from conspiracy theories and shock tactics, though he does reveal a little-known fact that Oswald threatened to blow up an FBI office in Dallas shortly before the assassination. The file on this was destroyed after he was shot for fear of tarnishing the FBI’s image.
Parkland is a film about detail: Jackie putting her wedding ring on the little finger of her dead husband; a nurse looking for a crucifix to give to the priest who’s called for as all hope fades; the FBI men ripping seats out of the presidential plane to make room for the coffin.
The characters that linger most in the mind are those of Oswald’s brother Robert (James Badge Dale), a decent young man who ignored the advice of police to change his surname after the assassination, his nutty mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver), who believed her son was an FBI agent, and Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the clothing manufacturer man who shot 26 crucial seconds of the assassination on an 8mm home movie camera and as a result became known all around the world. Zapruder hated his ‘fame’ because it came about as a result of him filming “the undignified end of a dignified man”.
How dignified was Kennedy in reality? Despite the repeated stories of serial infidelities on his part to Jackie, he continues to occupy near-sacred status in the global psyche.
To this extent his killing on that phenomenal Friday in 1963, for many people, signalled the death knell of an age of innocence.
Landesman chronicles the seminal moments of this sea-change in a docu-drama that whispers more evocatively than Oliver Stone and his ilk can shout. It’s a graceful film that left me as stunned as its cast looks. They all have very expressive “sixties” style faces – chiselled, anguished, raw.
They speak to us even when they’re being silent, all the way from the folksy policemen dazed at the events to the sleepy-eyed young surgeon who, like the rest of us, woke up on that sunny morning not knowing that it would change his life forever.