Parkland – Film Review

Parkland 4

If you’ve studied the Kennedy assassination or even had a passing fascination with the events of that fateful day, you will instantly know what the subject matter of this film is by the title alone. Parkland refers to Parkland Memorial Hospital of Dallas. On November 22, 1963 the trauma team at this facility received a wounded President Kennedy, having been struck down by assassin’s bullets in Dealey Plaza minutes before. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the slaying of President Kennedy. Every year around this time books, magazines, TV specials and movies about Kennedy and the assassination spring up. Most of them are not worth our time and are produced to cash in on a seminal historic moment and a public yearning for closure. But Parkland feels different. It’s ernest and when the final images fade to black we feel we’ve seen a genuine attempt to help us understand just a little bit more.

Parkland is at its best in depicting the utter chaos experienced by the entire country, and world on that tragic day. No one was expecting this, and I mean no one. Kennedy was beloved and soared to celebrity, almost godlike status His demise was not even in anyone’s consideration set. He represented a turning point in modern American life.

Writer turned filmmaker Peter Landesman makes his directorial debut with Parkland. It’s an apt choice. Who better to take us through four of the most horrifying days in recent American history than a journalist. He is a stickler for details on every level. Landesman flawlessly directs the keen lens of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips and United 93) to deliver a shrewd mix of documentary style camera movement skillfully contained inside the framework of a taught drama. The film is based on the book Four Days in November by Vincent Bugliosi who shares the screenplay authorship with Mr. Landesman. There is no plot, only story. It lacks structure because all structure collapsed during those days. In other words. They nailed it.

The final product with a few exceptions is fine craft. Parkland strives to take a new approach on a topic that has been researched and debated beyond any single event in human history. Most of us think we know most of what transpired, but this film is told in a visual manner that makes us feel as if we are seeing it with fresh eyes. As the title foreshadows, we spend a lot of time inside Parkland’s trauma rooms. Most of the time they are a complete and utter mess. Residents, nurses, doctors, and a confused group of government workers struggle to do their individual jobs, all working for the same goal. To change what they know inside of them is going to be the inevitable outcome. No one summons superhero powers, and a modern day President is lost.

The cast consists of a collection of accomplished actors; Billy Bob Thornton, Paul GIamatti, Marcia Gay Harden, alongside some very strong players. Mr. Thornton (below, third from left) plays Forrest Sorrels, a veteran of the Secret Service and the guy in charge of protecting Kennedy. He is tough and experienced but must now make the transition from being a protection officer for the ultimate chief executive to an investigator of his murder. Sorrels works independently after the assassination, finding Zapruder and striking a bargain to ensure the precious film becomes evidence. Sorrels obviously feels a great sense of responsibility but only shows us once. While viewing the freshly developed footage someone in the room turns to him and says, “You blew it.” Sorrels explodes.

Parkland 5

Mr. Giamatti (above, left) plays Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas businessman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Giamatti’s portrayal is deeply emotional and in some ways feels he is being used, but cannot put his finger on who or what. Zapruder was like any of the hundreds of citizens that day. There to get a glimpse of the President. The only difference was he had a camera and therefore instantly became the nation’s memory in this unthinkable shakespearean tragedy. He didn’t ask for that part, but he accepted it and reacted thoughtfully and respectfully.

Marcia Gay Harden (below right) is Doris Nelson, head trauma nurse in Parkland’s emergency room. She’s a rock and goes about her business strictly by the book. Despite this tough veneer she makes the emotional rounds of her colleagues, taking careful interest in their well being. Her presence in the trauma room while attending to a gravely wounded President Kennedy demonstrates her strength and devotion to her trade. When Oswald arrives after having been shot by Jack Ruby two days after Kennedy, she redirects the speeding gurney away from Trauma Room 1 and proclaims, “No. He is not living or dying in there.” Oswald dies in Trauma Room 5, the same room Jack Ruby passed away in four years later. Clearly Parkland has some deep karma.

Parkland 6

Zac Efron (above left) takes the part of Dr. Charles ‘Jim’ Carrico, who drew the short straw that day by being the resident in the room. Carrico starts off the morning carefree, but the gravity of the day causes him to mature in record time. Essentially he is the leader of the treatment team and after a brief “oh shit” moment, he springs into action. He becomes the collective conscience of the entire country by refusing to give up on a flat lined Presidential heart.

The filmmakers liberally sprinkle subtle visual clues that punctuate the enormous pressure everyone was under. The trauma room scenes are filmed in super realistic style and are gritty and gruesome. When the doctors and nurses work on Kennedy they aren’t wearing gowns or masks. In fact the doctors take off their pristine white coats. When Oswald is delivered, everyone is in full mask, head coverings and surgical scrubs. It’s a disguise, not wanting to be recognized trying to save Oswald’s life.

The Secret Service team suddenly find themselves having to care for a deceased President Kennedy. All of their training has been devoted to keeping him alive, not what to do once he’s dead. They don’t panic, but they become more human and less robotic. As they wait for the President’s body on the plane they suddenly realize they don’t know where to put the casket. Hastily they remove two rows of seats so they don’t have to fly the President back to Washington in the cargo hold with the baggage. In removing the casket from the hearse they fumble it and break off one of the handles. While struggling to carry the coffin up the metal gangway to Air Force One they must turn the coffin sideways to fit through the passage way. When the turn is obviously too tight, a saw is used to cut the bulkhead. They are all in shock but remain focused on “taking care” of the President. This more than any other aspect of the film illustrates just how surreal that day was.

The film pays particular attention to the Owsald family. Jeremy Strong gives it a go as Lee Harvey Oswald, but we will never be able to accept any other portrayal except Gary Oldman’s gripping channeling of the real Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Not in a million years. But Lee’s brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), turns in a fine performance. He has an unhinged mother and an obviously confused brother, but he is successful in balancing out the overwhelming insanity. The filmmakers give extra screen time to Oswald’s funeral that requires the enlistment of the press as pall bearers. Everyone else has turned their back.

All of the technical aspects of this film are strong. This is an independent film which typically gets shorter shrift in some areas. The producers, which includes Tom Hanks, were able to secure top talent in key skill sets that matter most. Ackroyd’s handheld camera as mentioned above, plays it raw and in the moment. Interiors are rich and focused, while outdoor scenes are tight but well layered. The era choices are solid and believably transport the viewer back fifty years. James Newton Howard’s score uses percussion, drum beats, pianos and a somber cadence that rightfully fits the mood.

Highly recommended.


Photo Credit: Exclusive Media, The American Film Company and Playtone

Political Celluloid: What to Watch when Decision 2012 is Unwatchable

It’s a presidential election year once again. Democracy is an amazing process, despite some of the gridlock we have experienced lately. I’ve never missed a chance to vote and look forward to being able to cast another one this coming November. I do get annoyed with all the mudslinging and attack ads, but that seems to be the new normal, or maybe it’s always been the normal normal.

No doubt the media, analog as well as digital, will be at full volume and 24/7 with who knows what over the next several months. Unfortunately there’s no way to avoid it without becoming a recluse. Escaping the noise from time to time is necessary, so I want to share what I do each election year to get away from the rhetoric and shrill of the campaign trail. I go to my DVD library and pull out my favorite presidential / political discs and have a movie marathon.

I highly recommend it. And to help you along I’ve chosen a select group of films that always seem to get viewed every four years. Have a look and pick one of these movies (or two, or three), pop some corn, sit back and enjoy. Oh, turn off the phone ringer so those annoying robo-calls asking for political donations don’t interrupt you.

There are probably a hundred or more films about presidents, elections and political power, but these are my favorites, listed in order by release year, latest first.

Frost / Nixon (2008) –  A searing, in-depth recreation of the famous interview that in many ways settled once and for all President Nixon’s involvement in Watergate for the American public. Frank Langella is the cold, calculating Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen is David Frost, who bet a personal fortune that he would get the goods on Nixon as well as a big audience. Takes place entirely post term and captures the time and culture perfectly. Directed by Ron Howard. Full review here.

W. (2008) – A psychoanalytic vista of the life and first term of President George W. Bush. It ultimately becomes a story of the entire Bush family and the presence of the elder President Bush is felt throughout. James Brolin plays W. pitch perfect, and surprisingly, Mr. Stone does not go off the reservation on this one. It’s toned down, compared to his other political outings. Worth a look, or another look to remind us of what things were like during the eight years under Bush. Full review here.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) – An updated version of the 1962 classic. Soldiers from the first Gulf War are captured and brainwashed. An alternate takes credit for being a war hero and becomes a Vice Presidential candidate (Liev Schreiber). His commanding officer, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) begins to think things are not what they seem. The details soon unravel for the master planners and they take additional actions to ensure their plan is carried off successfully. A high octane, paranoid thriller directed with precision by Jonathan Demme.

The Contender (2000) – Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson who is running  for Vice President to President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges). The story line takes many twists as the characters fight for power and to preserve their view of the way things should be. Sexy secrets are found out about Hanson who refuses to discuss them as irrelevant to her qualifications for the office. Bridges chews the scenery and Allen is steely strong. Gary Oldman is superb.

The West Wing (1999-2006) – Highly acclaimed and popular TV series covering the lives of the President and staffers inside the White House’s west wing. 154 episodes were produced and aired. This series captured the attention of millions for it’s realistic portrayal, likable characters and its occasional wink. Created by Aaron Sorkin with Martin Sheen as President Josiah’Jed’ Bartlet. Quality scripts, acting and production.

Wag the Dog (1997) – Wonderfully funny, oddly prophetic and highly entertaining. Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are over the top. Anne Heche swears like a drunken sailor and Denis Leary is, well Denis Leary. Barry Levinson and David Mamet scooped the Monica Lewinsky scandal before it even happened, with eerie parallels. The White House staff members create a fake war to distract from the president’s troubles. Hoffman, a seasoned Hollywood producer is hired to carry out the task.

Nixon (1995) – A biographical story of former President Richard Milhous Nixon. Oliver Stone follows Nixon from his days as a young boy to his presidency, which ended in resignation during his second term. Anthony Hopkins inhabits the persona of Nixon so thoroughly that you completely forget it’s not Nixon as early as the first reel. The Vietnam conflict was a major event during the Nixon presidency and Stone, a Vietnam veteran himself, intercuts combat scenes into the political theater. He takes the filmic style used in JFK and pushes it even further, mixing eras and cultures freely across the screen.

JFK (1991) – Oliver Stone’s (again) telling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy caused quite a stir in many camps. Regardless of what you believe about the murder, this picture broke new ground in filmmaking style. It plays more as a sonic mix than an edited picture. Based on the book Crossfire, it features an ensemble cast. Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones are stand outs, while Gary Oldman nailed Lee Harvey Oswald. Special nod to Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), as an absolute loon.

All the President’s Men (1976) – Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that leads to President Nixon’s resignation. Perhaps the best explanation available on the Watergate scandal. A taught drama that combines intrigue, power and investigative reporting. Excellent work from director Alan J. Pakula.

The Missiles of October (1974) – Made for television mini-series about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, three years after Castro assumes power in Cuba. William Davane plays JFK in this tense, detailed and an up close look at the process of decision making for an American President in a time of crisis. Also stars Martin Sheen. A good history lesson.

The Parallax View (1974) – Another reporter vehicle. This time Warren Beatty uncovers some nasty things while investigating the assassination of a prominent United States Senator. Ultimately he finds a conspiracy net with a powerful multinational corporation behind it all. The ’70’s produced some of our most interesting films thanks to “director as auteur” freedom afforded many filmmakers by the studios. Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men) directs.

Enjoy and please feel free to add your own favorites.

President Obama in the White House

It’s been a few days now since the inauguration and over two months since the world has known that Barack Obama would be working from possibly the most famous address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Each day since Wednesday I have come home and asked myself out loud, “What has he done today?” This will be a question millions will ask daily, then perhaps weekly. But my prediction is we will get news of significant and probably groundbreaking ideas and executive orders on a regular basis.

Obama's first act - Photo from the Associated Press

Although most of us are willing to give him some time, I believe he will not squander that precious gift. Kill time and you murder success, is one of my favorite sayings. President Obama knows that time waits for no man.

The modern White House
The modern White House

The White House is a storied structure of nearly mythic proportions. It”s overflowing with history and heavy burdens and retains something from all those who have occupied it as president in the past. The film director Oliver Stone gave us an ominous visual of the White House in his powerful but bleak pan across the iron fence in the film Nixon. It was a reminder that power can corrupt should one let his guard down.

The White House in 1846
The White House in 1846

I feel very comfortable with Mr. Obama installed in this residence. I know history is not lost on him, and firmly believe he will do his level best, and do it everyday in the bright light of transparency. It will be a refreshing next four years.

The Storied Transfer of Power

President Elect Barack Obama visited the oval office today and met with President Bush. This tradition has been practiced for decades. Their views couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, but I actually believe that Mr. Bush will do his best to pass the torch.

Bush to Obama the 44th - 2008

Laura to Michelle
Laura to Michelle - 2008

The sitting first family gives the incoming first family a tour of the White House. I can only imagine the emotions on both sides. The Bush’s have lived there 8 years and will never be back. They are dealing with what all of us experience when we leave a home we’ve spent a lot time in. The Obama’s must be so excited to be thinking about moving in and anticipating what it will be like to live in the most powerful and famous house in the world.

Here are some other transfer photos.

Clinton to Bush the 43rd - 2000

Carter to Reagan
Carter to Reagan the 40th - 1980

There’s a lot to do, but we’re ready.

Photo Credit: The New York Times

W. – Film Review

Oliver Stone’s latest film is W., a psychoanalytic vista of the life and first term of George W. Bush. Mr. Stone tones down both his filmic style and voice on this one. It’s not at all what you might expect considering the subject matter and Mr. Stone’s track record. W. is actually quite tame and in many ways even handed. You certainly recognize his familiar signature camera choices and fast cutting, but he has slowed it down, giving the audience a chance to let things sink in along the way. It may have something to do with the fact that he’s telling a story of a sitting President and not someone who has since passed away. Or perhaps he just feels sorry for Mr. Bush.

George W. Bush is played brilliantly by Josh Brolin. He has nailed it all around. Clearly the voice. But when we see him swagger through the corridors of the White House after a disastrous performance at a press conference, you actually see the President and not the actor. An obviously challenging role Mr. Brolin executes it with skill, spirit and sensitivity.

This is a story about the Bush family, not just George. Poppy Bush’s (James Cromwell) presence is felt throughout, even when he ‘s not on screen. Jeb Bush was destined to be the next political player in the family, not W., but God stepped in, saved W. and made a brother swap that seems to have been just as upsetting to Poppy as it has been to the rest of the world. Oddly enough we are left with the notion that W. was more like Barbara Bush than Poppy. Who knew? I didn’t particularly enjoy seeing that much of the elder Bush, but the script left Mr. Stone little choice.

There are some excellent actors in the film, but no one is a stand out or scene stealer. Richard Dreyfuss plays Vice President Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn is Donald Rumsfeld, and Thandie Newton is a thin Condoleezza Rice, both physically and in character development. This crew is downright scary, but no one more so than Karl Rove (Toby Jones). Genius boy is always checking his Blackberry and constantly totes a three ring binder, probably full of algorithms that crack the code on how to pull another one over on the American people. Everyone kind of floats in the background, plotting their own personal agenda as an ominous, dark undercurrent of “party first” permeates through everyone’s psyche. Everyone that is except Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who is uncomfortable with how things are being decided. We know how that ended. President Bush is decisive as we have come to know but relied heavily on his advisers. It’s a natural instinct, after all it was these guys and Poppy who set him up in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW. Too bad they got so many things wrong.

Out of nowhere, Mr. Stone cuts in some brutal footage of the Iraq war. It kind of feels like a cheap shot, as it is such a stark departure from the clinical, political settings we had been watching. It’s a chilling reminder that unleashing the “shock and awe” of war has equally “shock and awe” consequences.

Mr. Stone gives us lots to ponder. Periodically he brings us back to center field in the Texas Rangers baseball stadium. A franchise once owned by W. This was George’s field of dreams. A place where he could come and clear his mind. The White House lawn was not as kind. In the opening shot he’s in a baseball uniform sprinting toward the wall and snares a fly ball. In the closing scene he’s back in center field, but this time his uniform is the standard Presidential business suit. He’s tracking a fly ball once again and approaches the warning track. But the ball never finishes its arc. He gazes toward the sky in confusion and dismay. Wondering what happened.

The film was shot in 46 days so it could be released prior to the election. But there is really nothing new here, and certainly nothing at all controversial. It won’t have any impact on the outcome of the election.

Mr. Stone has always provided footnotes and historical references to back up his films. No where was that more important than in JFK, as the Book of the Film contained not only the screenplay, but countless cross references to actual events. That was before the web. The W. official web site is not that very inspiring or fun, but the W. official film guide site is fascinating. It provides descriptions of 83 of the film’s scenes accompanied by articles, reference works and other source material. It’s worth a look. As far as the film goes, you can definitely wait to rent this on DVD in a few months.

Photo Credit: Lionsgate and Warner Bros.

Bill Clinton for President!?

Of course it can’t happen. I know not everything about it was good. And on today’s world stage he may not even be the right choice. But I do miss having a President that is engaged, can speak without being tongue-tied, is intelligent and focused on meaningful goals of average citizens.


On the anniversary of the fifth year of the war, I can’t take much more of the Bush administration’s lack of transparency, single-mindedness on the wrong priorities and squander of the country’s resources.

The past eight years have been nothing short of surreal. I’m looking forward to having the next four real. Don’t miss your chance to vote this November. I know it seems like a ways off, but mark your calendars today! Take advantage of early voting so you don’t miss the chance. Anything can happen on election day. You could get sick, your kids could be sick, your car might break down. Take back ownership!