Parkland and the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination

Following an article that I was widely quoted in that appeared in the Metro newspaper recently, I was invited to attend a screening of the movie, Parkland, at the American Embassy in London. The film addresses the immediate aftermath of the ambush that awaited President Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and is named after the hospital that tended all too briefly to JFK.

The first hour of the film appears to proceed in virtual real time, with the action (if that is the appropriate word) focused on the events in Trauma Room One and the frantic efforts to resuscitate the stricken chief executive. For the remaining 35 minutes or so, the movie speeds through the events of the following 2 days culminating in the simultaneous funerals of President Kennedy and his alleged assassin.

Much like the 2006 movie Bobby, Parkland feels like a small, independent movie, packed to the rafters with A-C list Hollywood actors, eager to be associated with the Kennedy legacy. As with Bobby, Parkland suffers as a direct result since one is all too often thinking, ‘Oh look, it’s (fill in the blank) in a funny hat.’  The movie also suffers from a lack of direction or obvious intent: It is never clear what the message of the movie is meant to be or who it is aimed at. It is certainly moving in places but this a result of the storyline more than the actual movie itself. As always, Paul Giamatti is excellent in his work as Abraham Zapruder, less successful, however, is Billy Bob Thornton, who as always, plays Billy Bob Thornton, this time in a hat and suit that appear 2 sizes too small and seems to be in a little movie all by himself, never quite appearing to be part of the wider events portrayed on screen.

Parkland continues the recent attempt to move away from focusing upon the graphical content of the Zapruder film, despite this being at the centre of the film. This is a strange decision, but far from the only challenging aspect to the film: For a movie that seems to want to stress it’s grasp of detail it singularly fails to include an appearance by Abraham Zapruder on American television that destroyed weekend.

The role of the FBI is singularly unquestioned. No mention is mentioned of the memo that was sent to every FBI field office on the eve of the assassination, warning of a threat to the president. Even the destruction of evidence linking Oswald to the FBI, which began that weekend, is presented in a very matter of fact manner, and not as part of a far larger effort to destroy evidence.

Despite the vast about of achieve footage of the doomed motorcade, hardly any is utilised, presumably due to the cost involved. This however, removes what could have been an interesting way in which to present the interaction between the president and everyday Texans as he glided to his untimely end. Considering the effort of the film to address the murder through the eyes of average citizens, this would have been a logical and effective addition.

Missing also from the film’s use of archive footage is the scene at Love Field when secret service agents were ordered to stand down from the presidential limousine. Missing entirely is the figure of Clint Hill, the sole secret service agent who leapt to action as the bullets were fired.

Vitally, at no point is Oswald’s innocence raised in a serious fashion. Only Oswald’s mother holds out the possibility that there may be more behind the shooting than meets the eye, but she is routinely portrayed as being unstable. Indeed, the widely addressed conspiracy theories are only raised as straw men, to be demolished by Oswald’s brother Robert. No serious consideration is given to any debate or discussion surrounding the assassination.

Parkland singularly fails to develop upon the myriad tales of individual involvement in the aftermath of the shooting or how the events impacted the rest of their lives. Clearly, many involved never recovered and never moved on from the events portrayed in the movie. As with Bobby, there were many interesting stories that could have been told around the historic event, but this is not one of them. Indeed, there really is no story at the centre of the movie. The medical team in Trauma Room One in particular were haunted by the events and their actions and reactions questioned and investigated ever since. This would have been a tale to tell, but one that may have required greater acting capacity than provided by Zac Efron, whose doe eyed look is the extent of his emotional range.

The release of Parkland raises a serious issue surrounding the portrayal of the assassination on film. In the decade following the president’s murder, a series of movies emerged that directly challenged the official version of events. These included Executive Action, Winter Kills and The Parallax View. Then came JFK, Oliver Stone’s behemoth that brought the events to a new generation and which resulted in the release of a slew of previously unreleased documents. However, in the years that have followed, challenges to the official record have disappeared. Parkland is only the latest in a series of cinematic recreations that blindly accept the lone gunman theory despite the fact that this has been directly challenged by a House Committee investigation in the late 1970s.

The movie fits into a very strange and increasingly conservative interpretation of the assassination and indeed, Kennedy’s life and legacy. 25 years ago, in 1988, it was not only permissible, but encouraged to look for complexity and contradictions in the official verdict and several programs aired that claimed to name second gunmen. While these efforts clearly went too far and were revealed to be flawed, they did at least seek to present a series of dilemmas that are at the heart of the assassination to the wider public. This is no longer the case. 2013 has revealed a near total failure to challenge the Warren Commission and indeed, has served merely to reinforce some of the more bizarre and far-fetched findings of that troubled report. It is indeed a strange world when a president can be killed in suspicious circumstances and it is those who are asking the difficult questions that are portrayed as being nutcases….

Some thoughts on ‘The Kennedys’

Every once in a while words fail me. As a writer, academic and broadcaster, I am sue that you can imagine that this is a problematic situation. However, such a situation occurred recently after watching the TV miniseries, The Kennedys.

Before I go any further let me state for the record my interest in this material. It may be hard to believe, but as a young guy growing up in Thatcher’s Britain I was a little unfocused. At 14 I imagine most guys are. Certainly I was more interested in football and girls than in studying and accordingly my ‘forward thinking’ teachers assured me that I would never amount to much, and would certainly fail any A levels that I should attempt.

And then something interesting happened. British television screened a miniseries starring Martin Sheen as the lead role in Kennedy. Broadcast over consecutive nights I was hooked, even if they finished too late for me to watch the end of them.

From then on I was hooked on American history and by extension, politics. Martin Sheen’s portrayal of JFK probably had as big an impact on me as anything ever put on screen. I started reading about the president, the family, the assassination and later on wider issues pertaining to the nation and its history. Like a ripple in a pool, my interests widened, but always with JFK at the heart of things. Eventually we studied the assassination at school and for the first time, I knew more about an event than the teacher.

So, it’s important to note that 1) I’m interested in the subject matter, and that 2) I’m no academic snob. I’m of the belief that whatever it takes to get people interested in history or politics, or whatever, is a good thing if it inspires people to develop an interest.

So, to end the digression and return to the subject at hand….

Earlier in the year, controversy arose when it was revealed that The History Channel were producing a lavish $30 million dollar mini series examining the Kennedy family. Key members of the Kennedy entourage spoke out against the project having seen drafts of the shooting script. This included the late, great Ted Sorenson, whom I had the very great honour of meeting before his death last year. The fear was that this was to be a conservative interpretation of events that would raise all sorts of scandals and portray a very different idea of Camelot than I had experienced in 1983.

With former Kennedy Aide, Ted Sorensen

Things came to a head when the finished project was turned over for broadcast. Realising the state of the finished article, the History Channel passed on the project. Having financed it, they now refused to broadcast it, claiming “this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.” Channel after channel passed on the project until it was later picked up by the ReelzChannel at a cost of $7 million, plus a further $10 million in advertising and broadcast the series in April 2011.

What you would be forgiven for not knowing having watched The Kennedys

 1. That Ted Kennedy ever exited

2. That Joe and Rose Kennedy ever had more than 4 children (only Joe Jr, JKF, RFK and Rosemary are identified)

3. That Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday, Mr President

4. That Frank ‘The Voice’ Sinatra organised the Inaugural gala

5. That JFK gave more than 3 speeches as president

6. That JFK ever travelled overseas as President

7. That Kennedy signed a nuclear test ban treaty

8. That JFK and Jackie ever had civil world to say to each other

9. That Jackie miscarried in the 1950s

10. That JFK was 6ft tall and not shorter than most people around him

11. That haircuts changed from 1952-1968

12. That someone named Martin Luther King existed

13. That RFK went on a voyage of self discovery from 1963 to 1968

14. That anything of any importance happened between 1963 and 1968

15. That there is any dispute over the deaths of the Kennedy brothers.

16. That Joe Kennedy was American and not British.

17. That Joe Kennedy had his stroke in the winter of 1961 and that the administration carried on fine for almost 2 years after that.

18. That JFK had a group of talented individuals around him who worked on key issues and ensured a successful delivery of the administration’s policies and messages.

19.That there was anyone else in the cabinet except Bob McNamara (who looked nothing like he did in this series and was pictured sitting on the wrong side of the President in key meetings.

20. That Secretary of State Rusk was not the same person as Ambassador Stevenson. Time and again the show allocated sentiments and statements articulated by US Ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, to Secretary of State Rusk.

I could go on, but time and space prevent this!

Problems abounded in the production. There was a lack of tension, music was terrible, the use of non-related, pretentious quotations at the start of episodes was distracting. The habit of starting episodes with the climax before rehashing events that led up to events was repetitive and didactic. And then there were the haircuts…

I don’t know how familiar any of you are with fashion, but over a 16-year time span, they change. But not on this show. JFK and RFK are shown with the same wigs throughout this entire time period, ensuring that RFK looked exactly the same at the start of Ike’s America, as he did at the peak of the hippy movement in 1968.

This was nothing more than a Pantomime interpretation of history. The real tragedy will be if anyone accepts it as history, or worse is repelled from this incredible story due to the awful portrayal of events in this travesty of a show.