If you were alive and sentient in 1963, you know exactly where you were when you heard President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. If you weren’t alive, the moment may have been handed down to you as a generation’s cruel coming-of-age, but its impact may seem mythical. “Parkland,” Peter Landesman’s film about the events in Dallas from Nov. 22-25, has the effect of reminding the first audience and teaching the second just how seismically awful those days felt. As far as I can tell, that’s the movie’s entire reason for being.
Bulging with period details and a large and busy cast, “Parkland” is well made and at times queasily fascinating. At others, it gives in to melodrama and the ticking off of facts. The title comes from the name of the hospital to which Kennedy is rushed after the shootings in Dealey Plaza; Brett Stimely, as the president, is seen in bloody glimpses between the medical personnel. The assassination itself, earlier in the movie, is heard only as distant gunfire as Landesman focuses on Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) cranking his soon-to-be-infamous Super 8 camera.
Based on Vincent Bugliosi’s “Four Days in November” — itself a book-length excerpt from his 1,600-page 2007 tome “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy” — “Parkland” is a portrait of a city in shock. Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) wanders through the operating room holding a piece of her husband’s skull and a nebbishy Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) has one jailhouse sequence. Mostly, though, the focus is on people we don’t know: Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) and Malcolm Perry (Colin Hanks), the Parkland doctors tasked with trying to save the president; nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden); FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), who was tracking Oswald; Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), the sorrowful old head of the Secret Service’s Dallas office.
The two most affecting figures are Zapruder, a manufacturer of women’s clothing whom Giamatti plays as a gentle man horrified by his sudden place in history, and Bob Oswald (James Badge Dale), Lee’s middle-class brother, struggling to fathom what his kin has done. Either of them might be worthy of a movie on his own, but “Parkland” has its hands full trying to paint an epic canvas.
There are details that stick out with surreal clarity: Secret Service agents ripping down a door frame on Air Force 1 as they struggle to load the president’s coffin. A fistfight that broke out between the agents and the Dallas medical examiner (Rory Cochrane) who refused to let the body leave his jurisdiction. Mama Oswald (Jacki Weaver), a grossly deluded fame-seeker who could have stepped straight out of a Tennessee Williams play.
Outside of Weaver’s scenery-chewing (which for all I know is true to the woman) most of the actors play it close to the vest, in keeping with the film’s tone of civic trauma. Occasionally, a character will stoop to a TV-drama outburst — sweeping everything off his desk in frustration — but in general this is far from an embarrassment like Emilio Estevez’s 2006 “Bobby,” another all-star Kennedy memorial.
Still, what’s the point? “Parkland” has no truck with conspiracy theories; in keeping with Bugliosi’s books, the movie maintains that Oswald acted alone. Late in the film, Landesman intercuts between JFK’s funeral on television and Oswald’s lonely burial in a Texas graveyard — the press photographers serving as pallbearers because no one else would come — as if there were some dramatic irony to be mined from the contrast. But there isn’t; the movie comes up with air. As the 50th anniversary of the assassination looms, “Parkland” simply offers dramatic re-creation in the service of commemoration — a keepsake for those who were there and a diorama for those who weren’t.