As the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination approached, director Peter Landesman evidently sought a way to observe the occasion in a manner that eschewed the typical Hollywood approach to the 35th president, as either a fount of conspiracy theory (Oliver Stone's JFK) or a source of salacious dish (the TV miniseries The Kennedys).
His solution was to present the assassination from the perspectives of those people in Dallas who experienced it first-hand.
Parkland takes its title from the Dallas hospital where both Kennedy and his presumed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald died -- in the same emergency room.
Ex-journalist Landesman strives to keep it factual, starting with Kennedy's landing in Texas (news footage is impressively woven into the multi-character narrative) and ending with two funerals. We see modest businessman Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) preparing his movie camera to capture footage of the president as his motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza. Parkland's resident surgeon Dr. Charles Carrico (Zac Efron) awakens for another day in the emergency room. Secret Service honcho Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) scans the horizon knowing his home turf can be hostile territory for liberals. And FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) is up to his neck in paperwork in the FBI field office evaluating potential threats to the visiting president.
When the threat turns real, the film becomes variations on a theme of shock. On the basis of his 8-millimetre footage, Zapruder becomes history's most famous witness. Carrico is momentarily stunned to see the shattered skull on his operating table belongs to the president of the United States. Sorrels is shaken to the core by this failure of presidential security. And Hosty realizes with growing horror he is the one assigned the threat assessment of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The film's most interesting plot thread involves Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), the brother of the accused assassin, a guy working in an office when he hears on the radio that his younger brother has been arrested for the murder of the president. He is a sane man who strives to keep his head in the face of a historic act of murder perpetrated by his unstable brother (Jeremy Strong) that apparently met with the approval of their apparently deranged, narcissistic mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver).
Details of the assassination and its aftermath have been seared into the consciousness of those who were alive to experience it: Zapruder's footage, Walter Cronkite's on-air confirmation of the president's death, John Jr.'s graveside salute.
Parkland enriches that with curious details from the front line of the event. Both Dr. Carrico and Zapruder make gestures to preserve the dignity of the dead president: Carrico refrains from cutting Kennedy's shorts from his body and Zapruder sells his film footage to Life magazine with the stipulation the devastating head shots are not included in the magazine's layout. Hosty is pressured to burn Oswald's file to protect the FBI's reputation. Robert Oswald enlists reporters as pallbearers to help move his brother's body from the hearse, because no one else showed up.
Adapted by Landesman from Vincent Bugliosi's book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Parkland lacks the weight of serious historical drama due to some miscasting (Efron as the surgeon, Tom Welling as a distraught Secret Service agent). But when it does work, it succeeds in making the case that, in the event of a historic tragedy, the emotional connections are often best made through its footnotes.