News Column

Film casts fresh eye on JFK assassination

October 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 04--In 50 years, every morsel of knowledge about John F. Kennedy's assassination has been picked up, examined and filed away as evidence or spun into speculation. But Peter Landesman believes he's found something new to say.

"Everybody's carrying around in their minds their own movie of this day and this weekend," said the writer and director of "Parkland," which opens Friday. And Landesman is offering another -- but it's one that shines the spotlight in different directions.

"Parkland" -- the first film for Landesman, a former New York Times investigative reporter -- careens through four of the 20th century's most documented days, from the morning of Nov. 22 (rainy, innocent) to the Nov. 25 funerals for Kennedy and his assassin. He and producer Tom Hanks agreed on two things, Landesman said: "Everything in this film has to be true, and everything in this film has to be something no one's ever seen before." He believed that, after five decades of books and films, some stories about the Kennedy assassination still hadn't been told.

"I felt offended by the obsession with the conspiracy theories," he said, "knowing intuitively that we were missing the more important, profound story."

"Parkland," Landesman said, is "a film about character and about people and about what happens to people in extraordinary circumstances."

Except for historical footage, the president appears in "Parkland" only as a gunshot-wound victim and, later, in a casket. Jacqueline Kennedy (Kat Steffens) appears in a few scenes, but she's mostly seen and not heard.

Instead, Landesman says he wanted to dig beneath the story we all know. "Parkland" plucks out moments of private anguish that were buried beneath the public anxiety: A 28-year-old surgical resident (Zac Efron), fresh-faced and green, is called in to try to save a president. The head of the Dallas Secret Service office (Billy Bob Thornton) realizes a president was killed on his watch. The assassin's brother, Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale) hears about his brother's arrest on the radio. A dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) comes out to film the motorcade and ends up with a grainy film of a killing.

These are private lives made suddenly part of a public catastrophe. Their faces change and their jaws set as history begins to weigh on their shoulders.

"Nothing's ever going to be the same again," Giamatti's Zapruder says. "I wish I never took this film, but now I'm going to have to live with it."

"There was no road map. These were just people doing their jobs the best they could to get through the day, which seemed impossible," Landesman said. "And that's what obsessed me. In comparison to the way we've covered this story throughout 50 years, this just seemed like the bigger, more interesting, more honest and more true story."

"Parkland" has been criticized because it avoids talk of conspiracy. Landesman said he knows the movie will upset some viewers because it doesn't contain any of the explanations they've formed in the past 50 years.

"If you insist that there's only one way to tell this story," he said, "you will keep bumping up against walls in this movie because this movie refuses to engage it." Instead, Landesman said, he wanted to take viewers back to a time before conspiracy talk dominated the discussion.

"Parkland" is full of blood, brain matter, selfishness and disgraceful behavior. It's a realism designed to pull the assassination out of sepia-toned memory and take viewers back into the chaos of the moment, before events could be shaped into a narrative.

Landesman was in lower Manhattan on 9/11. "I remember standing in front of the towers as they were going down," he said. "The World Trade Center, crumbling in front of me, and I don't even know what I'm looking at. My mind can't process it. That's largely the experience I wanted to portray in this film."

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(c)2013 Houston Chronicle

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