Review: Tawdry JFK drama 'Parkland' an exercise in sorely misjudged nostalgia
Such is the level of characterization and emotional profundity throughout: rather a severe shortcoming in a film that purports to tell the story mostly through the eyes of the real, little people. It's understandable that writers and actors often feel hamstrung when required to make a living, breathing character of a celebrity figure as iconic as, say, John F. Kennedy -- whose face here is coyly shielded at every turn. But even in a project of such dubious taste, the regular-folk construct should be an avenue toward portraying textbook history in an empathetically human context, not gawking at the second-degree famousness of someone who once got to touch the President's bloodied corpse. (Landesman's script misses even the small sociological details: how likely is it that a cadre of iron-jawed presidential aides would have addressed the newly widowed First Lady by her abbreviated Christian name?)
The only figure in this waxen ensemble who emerges as something resembling a complex, conflicted human being is Oswald's decent, stoic but tacitly ashamed brother Robert, a man in no doubt as to his sibling's guilt but attempting to muster up enough unconditional love to understand his mindset. In the only performance here that feels porous and palpably damaged, James Badge Dale is given too little to work with to come close to salvaging the whole tawdry affair, but his efforts are appreciated all the same. As his vindictive mother Marguerite, meanwhile, Jacki Weaver goes to the opposite extreme, playing the woman's horn-rimmed glare and hissing conspiracy theories for high camp value. It's the cartoonish approach this material arguably calls for, but a distracting one when none of her blander co-stars apparently received the memo.
Shot by the great Barry Ackroyd in a curious fashion that suggests Landesman was at once after un-anchored, "United 93"-style immediacy and lacquered period warmth, the film cuts urgently from strand to strand without amassing much in the way of momentum -- largely because the human stakes across the ensemble are so uniform. "The Grown-Ups," a wonderful episode from the third season of AMC's "Mad Men" (directed, as it happens, by Oscar nominee Barbet Schroeder) got right pretty much everything that "Parkland" gets wrong in trying to dramatize the repercussions of Kennedy's death as felt by those outside the inner circle, the eerie emptiness of mourning someone you don't know -- all without feeling the need to get within even six degrees of separation from the man himself.
Landesman, by contrast, milks even the most insignificant first-hand minutiae for pathos, bottoming out by showing us several brick-faced servicemen struggling to maneuver Kennedy's coffin through a narrow airplane door. It's an obliviously grotesque scene, made even more obliviously hilarious as James Newton Howard's cloth-eared score swells over their huffing and puffing, vainly attempting to ennoble a process that is the political equivalent of pushing a sofa up a stairwell: "An undignified end for a dignified man," to crib a line from Giamatti's fussy turn. That "Parkland" opens on October 4 -- somehow skipping out on the Golden Anniversary date only seven weeks later -- may be its solitary act of good taste.