How "Killing Kennedy" and "Parkland" Explore Other Sides of the JFK Assassination
November 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy which forever changed the nation. In the midst of the anniversary of one of the darkest moments in American history, two films seek to expand the events that unfolded leading up to the shooting and its aftermath. “Killing Kennedy,” a television film which aired on the National Geographic channel, chronicles the Kennedy presidency while dramatizing the life of his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, a Marxist and Soviet and Cuba sympathizer. In the film “Parkland,” a series of over-lapping story lines are depicted immediately occurring after the shooting, including the hospital staff which failed to revive the fatally-wounded president and the unwitting cameraman who filmed the clearest shot of Kennedy’s assassination. These two films dramatize the real-life people and events surrounding the event to give new perspectives for viewers.
In “Killing Kennedy,” an adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling book, we see the narrative timeline from 1959 to November 22, 1963, the date of Kennedy’s assassination. Over the course of the film, the lives of Kennedy (Rob Lowe) and Oswald (Will Rothhaar) are depicted and the events leading up to that parade in Dallas. While the life and presidency of Kennedy has been well-documented and dramatized in various films, television movies and miniseries, his depiction in “Killing Kennedy” touches upon the most notable personal and political moments of his presidency. From his announcement of his candidacy and eventual election night win in 1960 to his disappointment in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his administration’s successful negotiation to end the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Meanwhile, his family life is also touched up with no new revelations. His loving wife Jacqueline (Ginnifer Goodwin) remains by his side despite the illusion of infidelity in the White House and the tragic heartbreak they suffered over the death of their newborn son Patrick.
However, the scenes involving Kennedy tends to only serve as a time stamp for the portrayal of Oswald, from 1959 while living in Russia and attempting to defect from the U.S. up until his eventual arrest and assassination while in custody. For viewers, the Oswald narrative is more interesting, especially for those who were unfamiliar with Oswald’s backstory and motivation in the assassination. Make no mistake, this film is far from glorifying Oswald in this dramatization. Nor does this address any possible conspiracy theories that have existed since that day. “Killing Kennedy” purports that Oswald was a lone-wolf whose disgust in American capitalism drove him to kill Kennedy in hopes of spreading Marxism in the U.S.
Just before his 20th birthday, Oswald, a former U.S. Marine, visited the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to declare his renouncement of his American citizenship while hinting that he had already spoken to unknown Soviet officials about his knowledge of the Marine Corps., but would only be discharged of his military service. Living in Minsk, Oswald grew tired and wished to return to the U.S. and in 1961, he wrote to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow requesting return of his American passport, and proposing to return to the U.S. if any charges against him would be dropped. Meanwhile, Oswald, who was fluent in Russian, meets and falls in love with Marina Prusakova (Michelle Trachtenberg), a Soviet pharmacology student who spoke very little English. The two would marry soon after and settled in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where his mother and brother lived.
While finding it difficult to maintain a steady job, Oswald would hole up in his room writing out his manifestos against an oppressing government and became an outspoken sympathizer for the Communist regime in Cuba. Before his plot to kill Kennedy, Oswald attempted to kill retired U.S. Major General Edwin Walker, an outspoken anti-Communist, by firing his rifle at Walker through a window, from less than 100 feet away but failed while being undetected. He and his wife and children moved to New Orleans but Oswald was arrested for handing out pro-Cuba flyers and would soon become a target of surveillance by the F.B.I. Wishing to travel to Cuba via Mexico, Cuban embassy officials insisted Oswald would need Soviet approval but he was unable to get prompt co-operation from the Soviet embassy. Due to the complexity of being granted access to Cuba, Oswald abandons his plan and heads back to Dallas, where he would soon be hired for a job at Texas School Book Depository. At this point, Oswald believes it is his mission to assassinate the president due to his commitment to Marxism. We see Oswald having illusions of grandeur as he writes up his manifestos in his home while imagining reading them to the press while the whole world watched. This all culminates in the November 22, 1963 shooting of President Kennedy riding in a motorcade that forever changed the nation.
Actors like Martin Sheen and Greg Kinnear have previously taken on the portrayal of John F. Kennedy and with no disrespect towards Lowe’s performance, the Kennedy side of this film seems like a walk-through of what we already know. Its purpose is to remind audiences the trials and tribulations the Kennedy family endured while celebrating his accomplishments as president. But it’s the story of Lee Harvey Oswald that shows viewers the madness that drove him to kill Kennedy. Rothhaar does a better job conveying a growing sinister monster hell bent on eliminating those he perceived as threats. Without addressing any conspiracy theories, “Killing Kennedy” reinforces the narrative put forth by the Warren Commission and does not bother eluding any other possibilities.
Based on the book “Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy” by attorney and true crime author Vincent Bugliosi, “Parkland” documents the moments and days immediately following the assassination at Dealey Plaza. Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) is filming the parade on top a pedestal with great excitement but soon turns to shock and trauma as he witnesses Kennedy being hit by an unknown shooter. In a moment of panic, the crowds flee the scene while Zapruder makes his way back to his office when he is approached by Dallas Morning News reporter Harry McCormick, who was acquainted with Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) of the Secret Service's Dallas office. Sorrels demands Zapruder turns over the film for their investigation and later that day have it developed at the nearby Eastman Kodak processing plant. Here, the film is played back but seen through the reflection of Zapruda’s glasses as he watches in horror what he had already witnessed.
Meanwhile, once the motorcade reaches Parkland Hospital, nurses and doctors scramble to save Kennedy’s life while Jacqueline (Kat Steffens) remains in devastation. Dr. Malcolm O. Perry (Colin Hanks) and Dr. Charles James Carrico (Zac Efron), and Head Nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) must overcome their disbelief of seeing the president’s body arrive and work immediately to revive him. While their efforts were unsuccessful, panic and confusion plays out between the Secret Service, the F.B.I., and local police while trying to identifying and capturing the shooter. Once word gets out in the press over the shooting and the announcement of the President’s death, Robert Oswald, Jr. (James Badge Dale) overhears in disbelief on the radio that his brother Lee Harvey was considered the prime suspect in the shooting. Once Lee Harvey Oswald is in custody, he is visited by his brother and mother Marguerite Oswald (Jacki Weaver) who question him about his actions but are given little answers by him.
The following day at Parkland Hospital remains difficult for the staff who have trouble comprehending the events of the previous day. Meanwhile, members of the Secret Service are enraged with each other over their failure to protect the president. In addition, the Dallas F.B.I. office is scrambling to figure out how Oswald, who had been investigated by that office, was not previously pursued aggressively which could have prevented him from carrying out the assassination. Zapruder meets with a writer for Life magazine and expresses his wish that he never filmed the shooting in the first place because of how he anticipates it will change his life. With pressure to sell the rights of the film to the press, Zapruder is worried it would only tarnish the legacy of a dignified man.
On November 24, workers at the Dallas F.B.I. office witness the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on live television while he was being escorted by Dallas police. At the same time, Oswald’s family is holed up in a hotel room when they learn that Lee had been shot and was taken to Parkland Hospital. The same hospital staff still reeling from Kennedy’s death must work to save the suspected shooter who has yet to confess to the assassination to the Secret Service. As Oswald dies on the operating table, his family is notified and shocked by the death of Lee. Robert never doubts his brother’s guilt while his mother believes Lee was an agent for the federal government and set up as a patsy for the assassination.
Unlike “Killing Kennedy,” this film pays little detail to the lives of both Kennedy and Oswald. While the lives of the two men and the shooting are well detailed in history books, “Parkland” serves to document the other individuals deeply affected by the tragic event. Giamatti in particular gives a terrific performance of a man suffering from such shock while unable to handle the attention brought upon him just because he happened to filming at the right place at the right time. He plays Zapruder as a man who very much respects Kennedy and ashamed that he has become the face behind the graphic footage of the shooting. First-time director Peter Landesman does a great job of creating a “fly-on-the-wall” perspective for the viewer when dramatizing such hectic and chaotic events. Since the assassination has been so well-documented, it’s interesting to see it from the perspectives of those who were unwitting witnesses and participants.