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Parkland

Year: 2013
Production Co: Exclusive Media Group
Director: Peter Landesman
Writer: Peter Landesman/Vincent Bugliosi
Cast: Marcia Gay Harden, Zac Efron, Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, David Harbour, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass, James Badge Dale, Colin Hanks, Jackie Earle Haley, Jacki Weaver, Jeremy Strong

Like World War II, Vietnam or 9/11, writers and directors never get tired of looking at momentous events from another angle. The intent of director Peter Landesman seems to be to portray what it felt like to be there, and while that sounds obvious, the movie paints a real picture with the pacing by switching from one urgent scene to another where fraught people are trying to deal with a crisis, either national or just personal.

And I thought he did so successfully despite the middling reviews I read, putting some names you know and ones you've imagined in the centre of the drama. The approach isn't exactly scrappy like a documentary (especially when some of the performances are the tiniest bit over-egged), but it certainly has an assured sense of its pace and register.

It's an average November day in 1963 and a varied cast of characters are going about their day. Nurse Doris Nelson (Marica Gay Harden) and doctor Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) are performing their rounds. James Hosty (Ron Livingston) and Gordon Shanklin (David Harbour) are Dallas FBI agents considering and actioning their daily workload.

Dallas Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) is preparing for a special visit and presidential assistant Kenneth O'Donnell (Mark Duplass) is accompanying President Kennedy on his tour of Dallas. Even local clothing merchant Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) is excited, having decided to test his 16mm home movie camera by filming Kennedy's motorcade as it passes Dealey plaza.

The three shots that ring out mark an event nobody is prepared for. The procedural and physical jerry-rigging that ensues is portrayed simply and kind of beautifully later on, like when Kennedy's detail are carrying his coffin back onto Air Force One – they can't get it past the partition inside the doorway while keeping it level so they have to kick and saw it out of the way to give Kennedy due dignity).

When his bloodied, unconscious body is bought into the hospital of the title, it's hard enough trying to work but secret service, cops and hangers on bustle in and out of the room, and someone even has to have the presence of mind have a local priest (Jackie Earle Haley) ready in case the worst happens and someone has to give Kennedy his last rites.

While the medical staff – going all the way up to the hospital administrator (Colin Hanks) fight and fail to save Kennedy's life, the local FBI office scrambles to catch up and get ahead of the calamity, especially when it emerges in the coming days that their prime suspect – a flat broke, tin pot, wannabe revolutionary named Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) – has been on their radar for previous offences.

When Oswald's upstanding brother Robert (James Badge Dale) hears Lee's name over the radio, he knows it goes much farther than his brother having maybe killed the leader of the free world because of the hatred their name will now engender. Not even their crackpot mother (Jacki Weaver) always taking Lee's side and believing any number of crazy conspiracies understands the weight on what they're facing. Robert duly shows up at the cops intending to cooperate as much as he can, but he's already facing a king of cautious hatred.

And Zapruder can barely piece his emotional state back together after what he's seen when Sorrels makes it clear he has the most important piece of evidence in the most important murder case of the decade, ferrying him back and forth across the city between TV stations and labs to get the film developed, all while Zapruder tries to insist it only be used for the investigation and not to make anyone rich or famous.

In one sense it's got the whiff of a quality you usually see in the movies of Michael Bay or Peter Berg – of average Americans pulling together under the most difficult of circumstances and doing their jobs for the greater good. It doesn't have a lot of depth aside from just trying to put you in the places so many were crammed into trying to figure out what to do next and occasionally butting heads with each other, and it does that perfectly well.

Maybe the collective critical shrug was because after Oliver Stone's JFK we're constantly primed for any artistic representation of the Kennedy assassination to have a point of view about (or at least address) the half century-long mystery of who really did it. A lot of the excerpts from negative reviews I read were variations of questions about what the point was or what it added to the conversation.

But the thing is Stone's magnum opus wasn't about the assassination but the investigation into it a few years later – the depiction of the shooting itself is made up of footage from Zapruder's film and a few inserts and is all over right after the opening credits end. This might be the first time you've seen the immediate aftermath of Kennedy's killing with this much immediacy and if you're curious, inevitable creative liberties aside, it's a good place to start.

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