DVD/Blu-ray: "Parkland" overcrowded but almost always absorbing

Parkland (2013)
93 min., rated PG-13.

Those who were old enough at the time can remember where they were when the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. "Parkland" depicts that life-changing, unforgettably devastating day and the next three days that followed, eschewing politicking and conspiracy theories for a multi-character snapshot from the perspectives of the "little people" on the periphery. Based on Vincent Bugliosi's book "Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy," and written and directed by first-timer Peter Landesman (formerly a journalist), this ensemble docudrama is as episodic and overcrowded as it is rapidly paced and always absorbing without a moment to waste.

The day President John F. Kennedy and his first lady Jackie (Kat Steffens) were to motorcade through Dealey Plaza had all of Dallas in high spirits. Following his assassination, JFK was taken straight to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the stunned doctors and nurses tried with all their might to save his life but found it to be a lost cause. Shell-shocked that he captured the shooting on his 8 mm Bell & Howell camera, clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder (an affecting Paul Giamatti) soon became bombarded by the media and police. Upon hearing the news of Lee Harvey Oswald's arrest, his conflicted brother Bob (a stellar James Badge Dale) faced the local police's judgmental looks and was encouraged to leave the state. FBI Special Agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) had been trying to investigate Oswald, until the suspect was assassinated and taken to Parkland himself.

Writer-director Landesman skillfully crafts a free-floating tapestry and seamlessly sews together real archival footage with the authentic dramatization. When those gunshots are first heard, it's chillingly implied and urgently felt, as is the combination of tragedy and confusion. Impressively, Barry Ackroyd's hand-held camera never once gets a glimpse of JFK's face with all the blood-covered bodies in the emergency room trying to keep him alive. Period details and James Newton Howard's funeral score are also on point. Even if there's little to glean here that most didn't already read in a history book or learn from a special on the History Channel, there still are some insightful details in the mundane, like the Dallas coroner's jurisdiction over Kennedy's body, how seats had to be removed to secure Kennedy's coffin aboard Air Force One, and how press photographers were forced to be Oswald's pallbearers because no one else would help Bob.

With a sprawling ensemble of interweaving people, there is, natch, a multitude of famous and recognizable faces who pop in and out. There's Billy Bob Thornton as Special Agent Forrest Sorrels, in charge of the Dallas Secret Service; Mark Duplass and Gil Bellows as Kennedy's aides; Tom Welling as a Secret Service agent who just wants to get his man to rest in peace; Marcia Gay Harden plays head trauma nurse Doris Nelson who takes a piece of Kennedy's skull and brain matter out of the shattered Jackie's (Kate Steffens) hands; and Colin Hanks turns up as one of the doctors trying to keep the POTUS alive. Zac Efron isn't particularly convincing, but he does what he can as Dr. Charles "Jim" Carrico who was on duty when Kennedy was brought in and pronounced dead. Rory Cochrane, as coroner Earl Rose, and Jackie Earle Haley, as Father Oscar Huber, show up, too, for about a scene or two apiece. Some of them are left in the lurch, but Giamatti and Dale have the most dimension. The film is most interesting when it makes Bob Oswald the focal point and soon brings in the delusional, cateye-spectacled matriarch, scarily played by Jacki Weaver. 

93 minutes isn't nearly enough time to explore every character, especially at a mostly headlong pace. The material is so rich that a miniseries, or a two-hour movie at least, would have been even more satisfying. However, misunderstood at the time of its limited theatrical release, "Parkland" takes a fresh, more journalistic approach. It's really about the impactful ripple effect of everyone involved, how we as a nation coped with such a tragedy and a loss of innocence. The characters aren't the point here. They register as real people living in their naturalistic environments without each being fully formed and that's fine when everyone was in a unified state of hysteria. Those sweeping emotions are shared with the viewer and reverberate throughout.