Rob Edelman: JFK Plus 50

Nov 4, 2013

President John F. Kennedy addresses Congress
Credit Public Domain

Back in September, a new film titled PARKLAND very quickly made the rounds of the film festival circuit, screening at Venice, Toronto, and elsewhere. Then in October, PARKLAND opened theatrically. Even before coming to movie houses, its November 5 DVD release date was announced. From a marketing standpoint, all of this makes perfect sense. That is because PARKLAND is an ensemble piece which recounts the chaos that occurred in Dallas, Texas, five decades ago this month, upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The film is named for the hospital that Kennedy was rushed to after being shot, and the film weaves together the perspectives of otherwise ordinary men and women who were thrust into this monumental tragedy. They include the doctors and nurses at Parkland; Abraham Zapruder, who famously filmed the assassination; various FBI and Secret Service agents and Dallas city officials; and the family of Lee Harvey Oswald, the President’s assassin.

For its subject matter alone, PARKLAND is an ordeal to sit through. For openers, the hospital operating room scenes are raw and explicit, and are extremely difficult to watch given the identity of the man on the operating table. Viewers watching these scenes can separate themselves from the imagery by telling themselves, “It’s only a movie. Those are actors onscreen. Isn’t that Zac Efron playing a doctor, and Marcia Gay Harden as a nurse? And all that onscreen blood is not real.” Still, this sequence, while staged, is fact-based. That was a real person-- a real American president-- in that operating room five decades ago.

So in its totality, PARKLAND is an unrelentingly sad film-- as it very well should be. For those who are old enough to recall those history-altering days, the film surely will stir up a wave of emotion and a sense of melancholy as, in a few brief, heartbreaking moments, the Camelot of President Kennedy came crashing to the ground. But for those who are too young to know what it felt like to be an American on November 22, 1963, PARKLAND just may be extremely valuable and instructive.

Not surprisingly, the JFK assassination anniversary is much in the news these days, and films that deal with aspects of Kennedy’s life and death are at center stage. For example, on Thursday evening, November 21, Turner Classic Movies will broadcast five Kennedy-related documentaries. Four are directed by Robert Drew, the documentarian who is one of the fathers of cinéma vérité. Also screening will be PT 109, the 1963 feature that stars Cliff Robertson as JFK and centers on the future president’s gallantry while serving in the Pacific during World War II.

However, two films not scheduled for screening on TCM are well worth seeking out. Both poke holes in the notion that Oswald was the lone assassin of the president. The first is RUSH TO JUDGMENT, a chilling 1967 documentary by Emile de Antonio in which attorney Mark Lane challenges the findings of the Warren Commission that cited Oswald as the lone assassin. The other is JFK, Oliver Stone’s 1991 opus about New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s obsession with determining the truth about the assassination.

On December 8, Upstate Films in Rhinebeck and Woodstock will be screening JFK. Scheduled to be present is Zachary Sklar, the film’s screenwriter. This screening brings to mind a conversation I had a few years back with a student who is a big Oliver Stone fan. As we discussed JFK, which of course is nothing more than Stone’s take on the assassination, it became apparent that this young person, who was born decades after that dark day in Dallas and had no knowledge of the event, saw Stone’s film and readily accepted it as fact.

For this reason alone, it is oh so important to study history and know history-- and differentiate between historical fact and fiction.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.