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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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R.I.P. J.F.K.: Parkland zeroes in on details of the assassination
An onlooker's home movie becomes a time capsule of the tragedy.
An onlooker's home movie becomes a time capsule of the tragedy.

After years of watching movies and TV, I hold two truths to be self-evident. One: If the setting is a hospital, a medical professional must eventually grab the paddles and try to jolt someone to life while hollering "Clear!" Two: An incarcerated person and a jailhouse visitor must each solemnly place a hand, palm out, on opposite sides of the reinforced glass.

Okay, maybe these aren't universal truths, but they certainly pertain to films that fall back on clichés. Both clichés show up, distractingly, in Parkland, an uneven historical drama that reenacts President Kennedy's assassination.

For Americans, Kennedy's death obviously is one of the 20th century's most traumatic events, and we're used to thinking about it in epic terms. We're also used to thinking about it in terms of conspiracy, and in that regard Oliver Stone's JFK is, for better or worse, a definitive cinematic take.

With Parkland, writer and director Peter Landesman takes a refreshingly different approach. He doesn't dwell on conspiracy, and he keeps the scale small as he zooms in on the details of the murder and its immediate aftermath in Dallas. A young medical resident (Zac Efron) tries to save Kennedy's life at Parkland Hospital. A federal agent (Billy Bob Thornton) tracks down the legendary film of the killing shot by Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti). An FBI man (Ron Livingston) frets about an earlier encounter with Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong). In a horrifying irony, the medical staff that treated Kennedy also treats Oswald after Jack Ruby shoots him.

Some details are powerfully evocative. I'm shattered by the sight of Jackie Kennedy's pink hat, which sits on top of a bloody JFK as he is wheeled down hospital corridors. Also grimly fascinating is a tense confrontation that plays out between Secret Service agents and the medical examiner who says the president's body must stay in Dallas. Then there is the trauma of the men who load Kennedy's coffin onto the presidential jet. They knock down walls to get it in.

What I longed for, watching, was some perspective on this material beyond the details. With its star-studded cast and interweaving narratives, Parkland reminds me of old-fashioned TV miniseries, but at 93 minutes, it is too short for that kind of storytelling. I can imagine a great 93-minute film about these people, but it would need to feature approximately zero screen cliché.

I can also imagine an excellent film focusing on Zapruder alone. This is another memorable performance by Giamatti as a sweaty neurotic, and it helps me understand the tragedy of Zapruder. All he wanted was a home movie of a big day in Texas. He wound up forever associated with one of history's most notorious crimes.

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