The sudden, violent death of John F. Kennedy in 1963 plunged the nation into prolonged grief, marking an end to what was known as the American "Camelot" era.
In "Parkland," writer-director Peter Landesman recasts the characters of Kennedy, wife Jackie and his successor Lyndon Johnson as essential but secondary figures to the events of November 22, 1963. Instead, his mostly compelling drama focuses on the largely unknown people whose lives were forever changed by the tragedy.
These include the medical personnel who struggled to save their president, the law enforcers who "lost their man," a singularly unique witness to the tragedy, and the family of the man who caused it. It's a large group of players, and Landesman has assembled a remarkable ensemble of talent who prove that among them there are no small actors for even minor roles.
The team called to action at Parkland Memorial Hospital include Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock") as a pragmatic head trauma nurse, Zac Efron ("Hairspray") as the young medical resident who first treats the wounded President, Colin Hanks ("Dexter") as a senior doctor, and Jackie Earl Haley ("Watchmen") as the hospital chaplain.
They collaborate and conflict in the rapidly moving events with Tom Welling ("Smallville") as the Secret Service agent assigned to Kennedy, Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton as the head of the Dallas field office, and David Harbour ("The Newsroom") and Ron Livingston ("Boardwalk Empire") as local FBI agents investigating the crime and obfuscating some truth.
Like the Kennedys, assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Matt Becker of "The Good Wife") is a far less prominent character in this film than his deeply conflicted brother Robert (James Badge Dale of "World War Z"), or his delusional mother Marguerite (Oscar nominee Jackie Weaver of "Silver Linings Playbook") who believes her son is a secret agent.
Perhaps the most poignant of the stories is that of Russian immigrant Abraham Zapruder (Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti), who unwittingly documented the assassination with his 8mm movie camera. The experience deeply scars Zapruder, who is pursued by the media for publishing rights and only relents to an offer from Life Magazine on the condition that the film frames of the bullets striking Kennedy are never published.
Among the many other familiar faces in the film are Bryan Batt ("Mad Men"), Gil Bellows ("Ally McBeal"), Mark Duplass ("The Mindy Project"), Rory Cochrane ("CSI: Miami"), and Bitsie Tulloch ("Grimm").
The challenge in creating dramatic tension in films about notable events is the viewer goes in knowing the outcome. The Titanic still sinks. Christ is still crucified. (Quentin Tarantino famously thumbed his nose at history by having Hitler blown up by a band of Jewish resistance fighters at the end of "Inglourious Basterds.")
Landesman chooses to focus on the small details and private moments to make the characters vivid and engaging and for the most part it works: the start of a special but not yet extraordinary day as Harden adjusts her crisp nurses cap; the tender respect shown for the unconscious President's dignity in not stripping him of his boxers along with all his other clothes while receiving triage treatment; the abject humiliation of Robert Oswald needing to ask strangers to help move his brother's casket from hearse to grave. All of these and more, coupled with exceptional period costuming by Kari Perkins, art direction by Rodney Becker, and production design by Bruce Curtis - gently underscored by James Newton Howard - create a gripping cascade of images and feelings, actions and reactions that hold the viewer.
The film does start to lag a bit near the end, after Oswald's burial, but not excessively and the wrap-up of what happened to many, but not all, of the characters in the succeeding years brings a fitting closure to the story you thought you knew.