By Joan Ellis
On all counts but one, “Parkland” does a good job of filling a gap in the sad chronicle of November 22, 1963. We forget how primitive communication was 50 years ago – no cellphones, no cable TV, no computers, no blanket news coverage. Networks had to hustle to find local coverage of President Kennedy’s routine campaign trip. CBS leaned on its Dallas bureau chief, a young man named Dan Rather.
When the president was shot, his driver broke off from the motorcade and raced to Parkland Hospital. This movie tells the story of the chaos that engulfed the hospital while the country waited in numbed silence for news after the initial bulletin from Walter Cronkite.
As the blood-soaked gurney is rolled through the door, Kennedy’s personal doctor hands a vial to the young ER doctor on duty with the words that became a first in revelations about Kennedy’s health: “He has Addison’s disease,” the doctor says. At 1 p.m. the doctors stopped their heroic efforts.
The power of the film comes from alternating clips of fiction and newsreel. These are edited so skillfully that an audience is hard-pressed to know which they are watching at a given time. It’s at this point that the filmmakers do one thing with great subtlety and another with none at all. They guard the dying man’s dignity – and our own memories – by showing clips of him that are so glancing and quick that we aren’t aware that it is an actor on the gurney.
But then they blunder by filming in repeated close-ups an actress playing the grieving Jackie Kennedy. There is no understanding that the minute a contemporary public figure is portrayed by an actor, the credibility of the whole film is undermined. It’s not that Kat Steffens is a bad actor; it’s simply that she isn’t Jackie Kennedy in any way and couldn’t be because the First Lady was far too well known by the public to be impersonated. The newsreels alone would have carried far more power. Actors cannot portray icons when they are figures of our own time (exception: Jane Fonda’s short take on Nancy Reagan in “The Butler”).
Awash in turmoil at Parkland, dozens of people were trying to do the right thing without anyone to tell them what that was. The doctors, the nurses – the questions. Where is LBJ? Where can we get a coffin? Will the plane with the new president wait for the arrival of the dead president and his widow? Who will administer the oath to LBJ? Where is the Zapruder film?
Perhaps saddest of all is the sight of the men on Kennedy’s staff, who lost their president, their collective mission, and their jobs in one terrible moment. As we watch the bedlam at Parkland Hospital, the fact that this would be the first of three assassinations that stunned the country within five years staggers us again. How did this happen? We still don’t know.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.