“Parkland” begins with familiar newsreel footage of Kennedy’s visit to Texas on Nov. 22, 1963, when he joshingly accepted a cowboy hat in Fort Worth before decamping for Dallas. As the president and first lady make their way to the motorcade, a young emergency medicine resident named Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) blearily prepares for another day at Parkland Hospital; an FBI agent named James Hosty (Ron Livingston) glances at one of the “Wanted for Treason” flyers that have appeared around Dallas in anticipation of Kennedy’s arrival; and a garment executive named Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) excitedly grabs his new Super-8 camera and heads to Dealey Plaza to secure a prime spot for filming.
We know what happens next. And Landesman — a former journalist making his directing debut here — dwells with graphic, at times morbid fascination on the fruitless attempts of Carrico and his team to save the president’s life, reminding viewers of the copious amount of blood in the ER and tweaking the sound mix to accentuate every squishy footstep. Working with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd — whose shaky-cam technique has brought docudrama verisimilitude to the work of Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow — Landesman effectively conveys the chaos and panic of what momentarily felt like a coup. (“There are people ready to start a war out there,” says a frightened Secret Service agent played by Billy Bob Thornton.)
Those sequences are excruciating to watch, but once “Parkland” leaves the hospital to catch up with the unlikely individuals who intersected with the assassination, the film becomes a gripping, even mesmerizing exploration of events for which there was no frame of reference — experiential, mythical or otherwise.
Working from Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November,” Landesman doesn’t shy away from the bizarre coincidences and confrontations that converged around the JFK assassination, from Hosty’s previous communications with Lee Harvey Oswald and the outrageous demands of Oswald’s termagant of a mother (a hysterically strident Jacki Weaver, in the film’s only off-key performance) to the Dallas medical examiner coming to unseemly blows to keep the body in Dallas — a gruesome version of the federalist argument we seem destined to keep fighting. (Local autopsy today, local autopsy tomorrow, local autopsy forever.)
Methodically and with generally unfailing good restraint, Landesman re-creates the grief surrounding the crime and the confusion of Oswald’s capture and subsequent murder. He steadfastly avoids putting any spin on the ball, even when Hosty obeys orders to destroy the Dallas FBI’s Oswald file, thus igniting untold conflagrations of conspiracy theories. More obliquely, the filmmaker reminds viewers of a long-ago era, before the 24/7 news cycle and social media, when Americans got the same story at the same time. In this case the common culture was expressed by way of newsmen like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, who managed to find just the right words at times of unspeakable, confounding loss.
“Parkland” captures the sadness, solemnity and surreal weirdness of it all. But it also honors the dignity of those accidental participants whose lives would be forever marked by the JFK assassination: When Zapruder negotiates with Life magazine to publish stills from what amounts to an inadvertent snuff film, he insists that the most graphic frames be excised. (In an earlier scene, Thornton’s character’s shuddering reaction to the Zapruder film restores shock and outrage to those images, which have by now become such an embedded part of our visual vernacular.)
Improbably, the most affecting figure in “Parkland” is Oswald’s brother, Robert, played by James Badge Dale in a quietly galvanizing portrayal of a man whose fundamental decency informs every simple act and word left unsaid. Blessed with the kind of ageless face that transcends trend and time period, Dale is revelatory in a film that, while perhaps not conventionally entertaining, successfully acquits its mission: to tell us that this happened, and what it might have felt like to be a numb, grieving, reluctant witness.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains bloody sequences of emergency room trauma procedures, some violent images and language, and smoking throughout. 93 minutes.