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The JFK assassination film 'Parkland' keeps its cool — to a fault

"Parkland," which dwells on the four days including and following the killing of John F. Kennedy, is a star-studded advertisement for the book.

Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, the man who unwittingly filmed the JFK assassination, in "Parkland." Credit: Claire Folger Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, the man who unwittingly filmed the JFK assassination, in "Parkland."
Credit: Claire Folger

‘Parkland’
Director: Peter Landesman
Stars: James Badge Dale, Zac Efron
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

In the early ‘90s, Oliver Stone’s “JFK” stirred a populace already skeptical about the killing of John F. Kennedy into a conspiracy theory-gobbling frenzy. Two decades later, it’s easier to see it for what it was: a madman’s imaginative ramblings that posited a plot involving everyone but absurdly driven investigator Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). For a sign that we’ve moved on, witness “Parkland,” a by-the-books ensemble account of the four days including and following the assassination.

Though it includes Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) ominously intoning to his brother Robert (James Badge Dale) to not believe “this so-called evidence,” it never proposes the existence of a massive ruse. In fact, though it remains agnostic on any theory, it seems to mock conspiracies. (It’s based on “Four Days in November” by Vincent Bugliosi, whose “Reclaiming History” spends 1,600 pages coldly proving Oswald worked alone, with little tolerance for Stone types.)

In a film where even Zac Efron, as an absurdly driven doctor who has to tend to both Kennedy and Oswald, is presented as plain and nondescript, only Mama Oswald (Jacki Weaver) stands out. Looking (and acting) like Zelda Rubenstein, the diminutive hambone psychic of “Poltergeist,” she’s a grotesque gargoyle, chewing up scenery that no one else is chewing on as she proclaims that her son was a CIA patsy.

In a sense, it’s admirable that “Parkland” doesn’t take a side, going Joe Friday on a subject that’s been the subject of wild, reckless, barely founded speculation. It’s the anti-“JFK,” even if it shares a minor actor (Gary Grubb, one of Garrison’s men there, a doctor here).

In another sense, “Parkland” could use some crazy. It religiously adheres to truth — or a movie version of it, where someone on the grassy knoll pre-killing “casually” blurts out, “Nice day for a motorcade!” (It's also cute how the opening titles set up the assassination as though no one had ever heard of it.) But it winds up, ironically, too dry, too stilted. Film nerds will delight in a gratuitous sideline in how to develop 8mm film, but a subplot following Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) goes to few interesting places, particularly when it trails him going to the wrong development lab.

The actors are uniformly selfless (save Weaver), surrendering ego to stick to a naturalistic style and play colorless characters. (Billy Bob Thornton, as an anguished Secret Service agent, comes closest to giving a command performance.) But their efforts are more theoretically laudable than viscerally so, and “Parkland” is so afraid to take sides that it winds up revealing very little. It’s little more than a star-studded advertisement for Bugliosi's much more detailed book, which sounds like a great read.

 
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