Small gestures rather than grand conspiracies are what Peter Landesman went looking for when he decided to write and direct the film "Parkland," about the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy's Nov. 22, 1963, assassination. Starting with Vincent Bugliosi's nonfiction book "Four Days in November," he turned his journalist's eye to the seldom-examined trove of banal facts surrounding the days in Dallas experienced by players on the periphery of history.
"The JFK assassination theories are nonsense," Landesman insists. "It's like proving the existence of God. It's circular. Yes, the theories are entertaining. But they are such a distraction from what is much more interesting and important: which is the truth."
Indeed, as the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death nears, Parkland's facts-and-just-the-facts approach is particularly compelling to a contemporary audience accustomed to the investigatory rigor of "NCIS"-style police and medical procedurals.
We see Secret Service and Dallas police fight for possession of Kennedy's body, a situation that ultimately resolves itself without a timely autopsy. Doctors in Dallas' Parkland Memorial Hospital, for which the movie is named, mistake a bullet wound for a tracheostoma. And FBI agent James Hosty, depicted as a conspirator in the president's assassination in Oliver Stone's "JFK," is a lowly government bureaucrat ordered to destroy evidence to avoid a public relations nightmare over the department's investigatory handling of Lee Harvey Oswald.
By contemporary standards, the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination was a series of mundane but cumulatively significant screw-ups.
"These were all professional men, all doing the best they could," Landesman says in his office at Hollywood's Jim Henson Co. studio. "There were no procedures like there are now for these types of situations. From a security perspective alone, the idea that a presidential motorcade would drive under 20,000 unguarded windows is unheard-of now. Back in the '60s, no one with any medical training rode in ambulances. It was just the drivers. When Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby, he would likely have survived had he received medical attention while being transported to the hospital."
Landesman put in three years of research digging up such details, including flying to Kansas to meet with former FBI agent Hosty shortly before his death.
"He lived in an anonymous, sad little apartment," remembers Landesman. "He was the victim of a great injustice. It wasn't a big conspiracy. The reason Hosty destroyed the Oswald papers was mundane ass covering. He got shipped of to Siberia, while the boss who ordered him to do it, Gordon Shanklin, went on to have the FBI building in Dallas named after him."
"Parkland" was originally conceived of as an eight- to 10-hour HBO miniseries that would have devoted significant time to story arcs like Hosty's. After the network pulled out, Landesman turned the project into a feature that examined the visceral experience of Kennedy's death.
"I had to turn it into a one-act play. That kind of architecture is better to give an audience the experience of the actual event. They sit there stunned and shocked as if they know what it was like that weekend. Instead of a historical piece, there's something very present tense about it that you couldn't do in a miniseries."
In a particularly compelling scene, Jackie Kennedy, played in understated fashion by Kat Steffens, slowly steps into a chaotic trauma room and quietly delivers a piece of her husband's brain to an attending nurse.
Landesman says his producers hired a Washington crisis consulting firm to help deal with any potential backlash over the film's gore.
"Kennedy is such sacred ground. But I'm trying to set a scene in a trauma room," the director says. "Talk to a trauma surgeon about a head wound, they'll tell you they are covered head to toe in blood. In filming scenes like this, there is a line. On one side of the line is visceral power and on the other is exploitation. I think this movie is solidly on the right side of the line. Jackie isn't an icon in the film. She's a grieving widow in a chaotic melee."
Oswald's brother Robert (James Badge Dale) is given a similar humanistic rendering. Arriving at a remote Texas cemetery with his brother's body in tow, Robert is forced to ask members of the press to help him carry his brother's casket to its grave site. We realize this stigma of association will likely render Robert an isolated pariah until his dying day, his only company morbid intrigue.
"Parkland" received mixed reviews upon its American release this month. Landesman, recently returned from a screening at the London Film Festival, says the film has played much better overseas.
"European fascination with JFK is as big but different," he says. "Americans remain distractingly obsessed with seeing him through the prism of murder-mystery conspiracy theories. Europeans see him as a celebrity — a fallen idol."
Landesman hopes the 50th anniversary will revisit interest in the film and allow viewers to see the Kennedy assassination for what it was — a human drama with fallible characters.
"This movie deals with conspiracy by not dealing with it," Landesman says. "It was a really political film in its choice to not be overtly political."
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