Netflix UK film review: Parkland
Zac Efron's face6
Chris Blohm | On 25, Mar 2014
Director: Peter Landesman
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton, James Badge Dale
Watch Parkland online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / iTunes
Let’s take a moment to contemplate Zac Efron’s face. It’s by far the most reliable and steadfast feature of Peter Landesman’s debut film, Parkland, a soft focus depiction of the chaotic aftermath of the JFK assassination.
Efron and his face – handsome, robust and American as apple pie – turn up early in the film. He plays Jim Carrico, one of the doctors on duty at the Parkland Memorial Hospital where the iconic US president drew his final breath that fateful and traumatic day. At the end of this film, which plays like a drunk version of Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, Landesman shows us a picture of the real Jim Carrico. Of course, his resemblance to the Me and Orson Welles actor is close to nil.
In a way, this sums up the entire problem with Parkland. It aspires to cut through the conspiracy theories, and brush aside more histrionic retellings of the JFK story, in favour of real human truths. But it’s a facade. For all its pretensions, Landesman’s take on the Kennedy saga is pure Hollywood glam. Why else cast someone like Zac Efron as this stocky, rather unspectacular man? He spends his time looking like he should be sipping smoothies down Melrose Avenue rather than arm-deep in emergency room gore. Nothing about it rings true.
The High School Musical star is fine, naturally. He always is. Efron has an innate ability to be perfectly okay in the most ordinary of films. He can even be terrific in terrible ones (hello, The Paperboy.) And yet, despite all that, Efron hasn’t quite hit his stride as the bona fide movie star we all thought he could and should be. There’s still time for all that jazz, but films like Parkland hardly help his cause. On the other hand, he does get to say the line “You’d better get a priest in here” so that’s something.
The rest of Parkland’s snazzy cast fare just as lousily. Paul Giamatti, the kind of actor who can usually inject credibility into the most awful kind of hokum, stars as Abraham Zapruder, the creator of the notorious handheld film that captures the exact moment of the shooting. His reaction to the assassination is hilarious, albeit unintentionally. In a piece of montage prowess worthy of the greats, Landesman keeps the camera fixed on Giamatti while cross-cutting with the real Zapruder film. In other words, the fake footage of Zapruder melds and mashes with Zapruder’s real footage of Kennedy; fantasy vs. reality colliding in an instant. Genius. Alas, Giamatti makes an almighty faff of his big moment. As Kennedy falls, and Zapruder’s 8mm camera rolls – a whirring, mechanical witness to history – Giamatti lapses into pure ham. A melange of insincere gesticulation.
Sadly, Landesman’s handling of Abraham’s character is also fairly circumspect. Zapruder, devastated in the immediate moments following the shooting, goes from moral family man to corrupt sell-out by the close of business, giving in to the demands of the press for a reasonable financial compensation in the time it takes to complete a transatlantic flight. Symbolically, it works. Landesman’s clearly trying to make a point about the instant, and cataclysmic, impact of Kennedy’s death on the collective American psyche; he certainly pummels his message home. But given that Zapruder’s the most Jewish character in the entire film, it also feels clumsy, and just a little bit stereotypical. Perhaps a more nuanced and tasteful film with a decent running time (this one’s done and dusted in a mere 89 minutes) would have a better chance of portraying Zapruder’s motivations with the appropriate levels of subtlety.
The arrival of Jackie Weaver as a snarling and unrepentant Marguerite Oswald (Lee Harvey’s eccentric mother) steers the film firmly into John Waters territory. Like Efron, Weaver gets some incredible lines (“I will never be ordinary again”) but it feels like she’s stepped straight off the set of Mondo Trasho. Billy Bob Thornton, a man who seems less and less engaged with each and every film, phones it in as a distraught investigator who accompanies Zapruder as they try and track down a printer who can develop the raw footage.
Only James Badge Dale comes out of the piece with any dignity, as Oswald’s unsuspecting, all-American brother Robert. He’s a quiet and noble presence, playing it totally straight while everyone else seems happy to camp it up. Nothing can redeem this slight and unexpectedly trashy film, though. Not even Zac Efron’s face.
Parkland is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.