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‘Parkland’: JFK assassination drama seldom connects

‘PARKLAND’ ★★1⁄2

Dr. Jim Carrico Zac Efron

Robert Oswald James Badge Dale

Nurse Doris Nelson Marcia Gay Harden

Abraham Zapruder Paul Giamatti

James Hosty Ron Livingston

Exclusive Media Group presents a film written and directed by Peter Landesman, based on the book “Four Days In November” by Vincent Bugliosi. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for bloody sequences of ER trauma procedures, some violent images and language, and smoking throughout). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: November 5, 2013 6:04AM

Fifty years after the traumatic event, the assassination of JFK is still capable of touching a raw nerve — even in a dramatization as flat-footed as this one.

It shouldn’t necessarily be the case that a film focusing on the collateral details of the shooting, after the fact, would feel dull and uninvolving, but this writing/directing debut by journalist Peter Landesman does, with the exception of a few particularly interesting revelations. For the most part, though, even those are interesting as facts in and of themselves and might have been equally effective in a documentary.

“Parkland,” based on the book “Four Days in November,” by “Helter Skelter” author Vincent Bugliosi, shows early promise with scenes at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital, where just another day in the emergency room is getting underway. Everyone is aware that President Kennedy is traveling through the city in a motorcade, but the surgical resident (Zac Efron) and head nurse (Marcia Gay Harden) make no connection when they learn that someone is being rushed to the ER.

When the Secret Service arrives in a panic, there’s a particularly memorable shot when the shocked resident realizes he’s the one who’s expected to try and save the president. In fact, Landesman has done a nice job in general of capturing shock and confusion of those first moments. The medical team attempts to resuscitate Kennedy, the Secret Service men stand by, sickened and disbelieving, and the flat line kicks in on Kennedy’s heart monitor, still a disturbing sight and sound five decades later.

Soon, though, “Parkland” loses that feeling of immediacy and seems to step back a few paces, emotionally, as the cast runs through its re-creation. Even as blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) numbly hands fragments of Kennedy’s skull and brain to the nurse and Efron does the frenzied, chest-pounding, heart-massage thing, a strange sense of distance and detachment settles in — and stays.

The film follows several narrative lines from that point, none of them suggestive of doubt about the original “single shooter” theory. There are no scenes involving Jack Ruby, for example, and very few with Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong). Instead, Landesman is content to track Kennedy’s body on its journey back to the White House while picking up the stories of Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), whose home movie footage captured the moment when the bullets struck the president; James Hosty (Ron Livingston), the FBI agent who had been tracking Oswald as a suspicious character, and Oswald’s brother Robert (James Badge Dale), an everyday citizen trying to cope with the fallout from his brother’s actions. He’s doing a much better job than their mother (the typically excellent Jacki Weaver shrilly interpreting Ma Oswald as a raving loony), who insists her slain son was a secret agent who should be buried at Arlington next to the president.

Along the way, “Parkland” is occasionally effective at re-creating moments you might expect, such as Zapruder looking aghast at what he’s seen through his viewfinder, but it’s better presenting those you might not. The brief near-scuffle between Dallas police and Secret Service men for possession of Kennedy’s body, for instance. Or Zapruder’s insistence on withholding the “kill shot” frame before selling his film to Life magazine, or the mortally wounded Oswald being treated by the same doctors who tried to save the president, or the contrast between Oswald’s funeral (no church would hold the service and reluctant reporters served as pallbearers) and Kennedy’s.

Not because they’re dramatized in a satisfying fashion — most of the film is too emotionally muted for that. It gets points, though, for reminding us that all these things happened. And particularly for reminding us how unthinkable all of it was at the time.

Bruce Ingram is a local freelance writer.

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