Historian at the Movies: Parkland reviewed
In the first of a new series, Peter Ling, Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, reviews Parkland - a new film recounting the assassination of JFK from the perspectives of those who witnessed it first-hand
Q: Did you enjoy the film?
A: I did. An excellent cast with some fine performances, notably by James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald’s unfortunate brother Robert and by previously Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver as Oswald’s mother, Marguerite.
Weaver in particular offers a cameo of a difficult, delusional woman whose inflated sense of herself may explain Lee’s actions, and certainly deepens the audience’s sympathy for Robert Oswald. Even a Secret Service agent tells Robert: “your mother’s a piece of work.”
It is perhaps the movie’s signal achievement that it creates sympathy for Robert, whose plight underlines how the assassin’s bullet wounded multiple lives.
I also liked the movie’s treatment of other historically marginal figures like Abraham Zapruder, played by Paul Giamatti, and Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels, played by Billy Bob Thornton. Such star casting predictably means that some of the movie’s more dramatic scenes - for instance, when Sorrels watches Kennedy being killed in the Zapruder film for the first time - feature the two.
Perhaps as a result, the main historical figures - Jackie Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, most notably - become more scenic props than rounded characters. The First Lady played by Kat Steffens has few lines, but her blood-caked white gloves and pink dress capture her ordeal.
Q: Was the film historically accurate?
A: Since the film spins away from the assassination in Dealey Plaza quite quickly, it has more freedom, because the historical record for what happened to the peripheral players is less full.
It certainly tries to capture the desperate efforts made to save Kennedy in the operating room. It correctly shows chief surgeon Malcolm Perry (played by Colin Hanks) performing a tracheotomy to try to enable the dying president to breathe.
It shows that the head nurse, Doris Nelson (played by Marcia Gay Harden), had to take a piece of JFK’s skull and some brain tissue from Mrs Kennedy [Jackie picked up a piece of her husband's skull at the scene], and that junior doctor, Jim Carrico (played by Zac Efron), had to be told to stop the frenetic but fruitless cardiac massage at one o’clock, when the team declared JFK dead.
The movie also handles the meanderings of Abraham Zapruder as he is escorted around Dallas with his 8mm film in a search for a lab that can process and copy his unique home movie.
Once copies have been given to the Secret Service and the FBI, Zapruder has to choose from many media outlets who want to buy the film. He chooses Life because he says he respects the publication, but the movie seems to hint that any suppression of the film’s contents is in line with Zapruder’s wishes, and not because of suspect influences at Life itself, whose managing director had CIA connections.
Q: What, in your mind, did the film get right?
A: The film accurately captures the Secret Service and the Kennedy entourage’s seizure of the body from Parkland Hospital, and their almost frenzied attempt to get the heavy coffin aboard Air Force One.
As a murder victim in Texas, Kennedy’s body was strictly speaking evidence to be examined by the county medical examiner, and he tried to insist that it stayed. In the context of 1963, this insistence of states’ rights touched a political nerve as well as the raw emotion of JFK’s inner circle, who wanted to get out of Dallas as quick as they could and never come back.
Q: What did it miss?
A: The most suspicious omission for assassination investigators is the press conference given by Parkland Hospital staff in which they described their treatment of the president.
Nineteen individual staff members spoke of an entry wound in JFK’s throat, and ever since this has been cited as proof that the bullets did not come from the Texas School Book Depository, which was located behind the president when the gunfire began.
Earlier, I also doubted whether JFK’s official doctor would have told everyone in the operating theatre about JFK's Addison’s disease, given the secrecy surrounding that fact. I was also struck by the movie’s neglect of the murder of Officer JD Tippit, as this event really triggers Oswald’s capture.
Stars out of five
For enjoyment: ****
For historical accuracy: ***
Prof Ling is the author of new biography John F Kennedy, published by Routledge.