“Nothing is so firmly believed as what we know least.”
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
In viewing Peter Landesman’s Parkland (2013), it is near impossible not to recall Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991).
Jointly they present the parallel universe inhabited by the American psyche as it pertains to the assassination of John F. Kennedy; Two divergent views of fate in operation, two conflicting views of the agents of destiny.
One is a realm of monsters lurking in the shadows, where vast plots and malevolent cabals manipulate a myriad of players dedicated to a deadly design.
The other offers a view of destiny as a patchwork of everyday screw-ups. A medley of missed opportunities, jobs done half assed, and buck passing, ennobled by the rare spectacle of some individuals in the tapestry striving to do their upmost or just do what is right.
For one film, fate is the snap of a cunning devised trap.
For the other, fate is a banana peel in our path.
Let us pause here a moment for a clarification of fact: Americans are conspiracy junkies.
Perhaps it is due to our being a nation of people ― Puritans, Irish, Jews, Poles, Armenians, Cubans, Iranians, and others ― who fled from persecution. But whatever the reason, the Boogieman is as American as apple pie.
The papists are plotting to control America, the Abolitionists are inciting slave uprisings, the Southern states poisoned George Washington, the Jesuits killed Lincoln, the Masons are plotting to control America, the works of Shakespeare were actually written by the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe, Warren Harding was murdered by his wife, FDR knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor, fluoridation is a Communist plot, the lunar landing was a hoax, evolution is a hoax, Malcolm X, RFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. (insert one) was killed by the FBI, Global warming is a hoax, the Hippie Movement was a commie front, AIDS was created by the CIA, UFO wreckage is hidden at Area 51, the FBI planned the Oklahoma City bombing, the Pentagon was hit by a missile on 9/11, The Great Society was a plot to keep the black community poor, contrail vapors of commercial jets are delivering mind control agents, Gays, feminists, liberals, Zionists (insert one) are out to take over the country and\or destroy religion, gun control is a ploy of the “One-World-Government,” Satanic organizations are ritually murdering children, the CIA shot down Malaysia Airlines 370, the media is controlled by liberals, Reagan made a deal with the Iranian government not to release the hostages until after his election, Elvis is alive, Barack Obama is a Muslim.
In the American zeitgeist the Spartans are always poisoning the wells.
The events of that Friday, the 22nd day of November in the year 1963, serve as the great “Rabbit Hole” for the American soul, which Landesman in Parkland refuses to pursue the rabbit through, unlike Stone, who in his frantic haste to plunge down it, tramples the poor hare under foot .
Parkland and JFK are both masterful works that occupy diametrically opposed landscapes. Separating them and defining them is the battle scarred no man’s land of the assassination itself.
Landesman, a former investigative reporter and award-winning author also provides unquestionably the most erudite and informative Director’s Commentary ever to grace a Bonus selection. In this commentary, Landesman offers a perfect synopsis of his film: “The movie isn’t about Kennedy…it’s about everybody else.”
In the Looking Glass reflection that exists between these two films, this can also be said of Stone’s JFK to a degree; it isn’t about Kennedy either, it’s about the demons his death summoned from the nightmare so many saw as ending the American Dream.
Landesman was determined to exorcise those demons, and to liberate the events of November 22, 1963 from the mythology which has obscured it almost from the first.
Toward that end he enlisted Vincent Bugliosi’s help.
Bugliosi, was the chief prosecutor who tried Charlie Manson and the Manson Family members for the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969. Afterwards he wrote of the trial and their eventual conviction in his best seller Helter-Skelter.
Bugliosi continued to write on other subjects that either captured his interest or provoked his ire, but his Magnum Opus was Reclaiming History, a 1,612 page volume that sold with an accompanying CD containing 1,000 foot notes wherein the Kennedy assassination was scrutinized with an intensity, some would argue, equal to that of the Warren Commission itself.
But Bugliosi has stated for the record that publishing a 7 ½ pound book that sold for close to $60.00 is not a profitable undertaking. So he carved some 600 pages from the front section of his tome and fashioned the excerpt into Four Days in November. In this adapted work he covered the period beginning with the Friday of the assassination to the following Monday when, on opposite ends of the continent, Kennedy and Oswald were each laid to rest.
It was Buglosi’s meticulously researched volume that Landesman turned to in order to furnish Parkland with a sturdy and studied frame work.
Stone and Zachary Sklar co-wrote the screenplay of JFK basing it on Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins, and Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy.
I can’t resist pointing out that Marrs has also written about the extra-terrestrials living among us.
As for Jim Garrison and his indictment of New Orleans’ businessman Clay Shaw even those in the conspiracy arena cast their doubts on him and his charges, as well as Stone’s film: Crime of the Century author Dr. Michael L. Kurtz has gone on record stating, “As a historian, I find the distortions of Jim Garrison and Oliver Stone appalling.”
David E. Scheim, author of Contract on America has described the Garrison case as, “…increasingly outlandish and the thrust of his efforts increasingly questionable.”
David Lifton, author of Best Evidence has blasted Garrison as “Intellectually dishonest” and “a complete charlatan.”
Offering one of the most interesting analysis of Garrison and his charges against Clay Shaw can be found in The Garrison Case: A Study in the Abuse of Power by Milton E. Brener who had once served under Garrison as a assistant DA. Brener writes:
“‘Certainly,’ said many in New Orleans, ‘Garrison must have something.’ A man in his position would be stupid, indeed, to make such statements without some solid evidence – and Garrison was certainly not stupid. Overlooked by many who so reasoned was the clear possibility that the man was stark, raving mad.”
The two most damning condemnations of both Garrison and his case are ignored by Stone, or totally misrepresented by him.
The first being the source of Garrison fixation’s on Clay Shaw.
James Phelan had written favorable about Garrison for The Saturday Evening Post when the New Orleans DA had initially brought up his charges. In a second interview Phelan tried to focus on motive and why Clay Shaw and his co-conspirators would want to kill Kennedy.
Quoting from Phelan now:
“‘They had the same motive as Loeb and Leopold, when they murdered Bobbie Franks in Chicago back in the twenties’ Garrison said. ‘It was a homosexual thrill-killing, plus the excitement of getting away with a perfect crime….’
I [Phelan] asked how he had learned that the murder was a homosexual plot.
‘Look at the people involved,’ Garrison said. ‘Dave Ferrie, homosexual. Clay Shaw, homosexual. Jack Ruby, homosexual.’
‘Ruby was a homosexual?’
‘Sure, we dug that out,’ Garrison said. ‘His homosexual nickname was Pinkie. That’s three. Then there was Lee Harvey Oswald.’
But Oswald was married and had two children, I pointed out.
‘A switch-hitter who couldn’t satisfy his wife,’ Garrison said. ‘That’s all in the Warren Report’ **
He [Garrison] named two more ‘key figures’ whom he labeled homosexual.
‘That’s six homosexuals in the plot,’ Garrison said. ‘One or maybe two, okay. But all six homosexuals? How far can you stretch the arm of coincidence?'” ***
Garrison’s homophobia also seems to reflect on other aspects of his personal life which I will leave for the interested reader to pursue on their own. Let us just say that among the numerous fallacies Stone invented for JFK, the notion of Garrison as an Ozzie and Harriet family man is among the most egregious.
The climatic trial ending in JFK may also be counted so.
In the film, arriving at the jury decision is a torturous affair. Not so the reality.
Garrison charged Clay Shaw with conspiring to assassinate President Kennedy on March 1, 1967. Shaw was brought to trial in the Orleans Parish Criminal Court on these charges on January 29, 1969. The trial concluded on March 1, 1969. The jury was then taken away to begin their deliberations.
The time from when the jury being taken out until the jury returned with a verdict was…get ready: Fifty-five minutes.
That includes the time they were taken from the courtroom to the jury room, selected a jury foreman, took their first vote, sent notice to the bailiff they had reached a decision, had that decision taken to the judge, had the judge reconvene the court, and had the jury returned from the jury room to the courtroom to read their verdict.
Jury Foreman Sidney Herbert was not a great believer in the findings of The Warren Report going into the trial. Afterwards listening to Garrison for a month he was quoted as saying, “Now I think a lot more of it than I did before.”
Another juror, Larry Morgan, was asked to pinpoint the weakest part of Garrison’s case. He replied, “Well, the whole thing…. The caliber of witnesses was totally unbelievable for the seriousness of the case.” N
Nothing in JFK, save that Kennedy was assassinated and that his assassin was murdered, evades the distortion of speculation.
Nothing in Parkland is based on speculation.
In Parkland we are given the seeds of conspiracy however, those simple acts that have thrown long, warped shadows.
Abraham Zapruder (played stunningly by Paul Giamatti) who in negotiating with Life Magazine over his film demands that the kill shot, out of respect for his fallen president, not be printed.
And Ron Livingston, perhaps the most under appreciated actor working, as FBI Special Agent James Hosty who caves into pressure from his superior and destroys the file they had on a local malcontent and loser named “Oswald.”
Both of these reactions are understandable in that they are both honest in their depictions of human nature. Something JFK and the conspiracy-minded hardly ever are.
An example of this is found in JFK’s portrayal of Garrison’s star witness Perry Russo who claimed to have met both David Ferrie (Garrison’s other villain in the assassination plot) and Clay Shaw, the villain of JFK and the primary target of Garrison’s investigation, at a party. A party at which he also claimed to have overheard Ferrie and Shaw discuss in details their plot to murder Kennedy.
Charges which Ferrie denied up until his death.
But let us look at those statements by Russo in the reality of human nature: If I were engaged in a scheme to kill the president of the United States, I doubt I would be very vocal about it in a room full of cocktail weenies and strangers.
“The idea was for the audience to experience the assassination as if it were new to them,” Landesman submits in the commentary, and that is what the film succeeds in doing. “History isn’t about conspiracies and history isn’t about backroom smoky rooms where people make decisions. History’s about mistakes and people fucking up, and covering up the mistakes…. That’s it. History is mistakes.”
- Insisting that the West Indies were Southeast Asia
- Discovering Australia a 100 years before the English but dismissing it as a useless desert.
- Ignoring repeated warnings of icebergs.
- The Archduke’s chauffeur making a wrong turn.
- The Archduke being sewn into his jacket.
- Clustering the fighter aircraft in tight circles at Pearl Harbor to protect them from sabotage.
- Going against regulations and fueling aircraft on the carrier’s deck in mid-battle.
- Attacking Russia.
- Not listening to your intelligence reports that the Chinese are massing at the border.
- Not letting them put make up on you for the debate.
- New Coke
- Dismissing warnings about the effect of freezing temperatures on the booster’s “O” rings.
- Taking Sam Bowie on your second pick of the 1984 NBA draft. (At least Houston got Hakeem Olajuwon on the first pick.)
- Rejecting Harry Potter (you can repeat this line eleven more times.)
- Backing the XFL.
- Dismissing an 11 page report entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” on August 6, 2001.
Mistakes. Such is history, but not conspiracies.
Stone’s kaleidoscopic rearrangement of historical facts in JFK runs the gauntlet from the minute to the momentous.
He has Garrison claim that the statements Oswald made in custody would be inadmissible in court, whereas in fact they would have been perfectly admissible.
Garrison claims in his book and Stone repeats in JFK that nobody made a record of Oswald’s twelve hours of interrogation, when in fact such records can be found in The Warren Report.
In the movie Stone claims dozens of Dallas police converged on the Texas Theatre to arrest a man for entering without paying the admission and that in the melee that followed, Oswald punched one of the arresting officers. In fact, the police converged on the Texas Theatre to arrest the man who had been eye-witnessed as entering after shooting Patrolman J.D. Tippett to death. And Oswald, in the theatre, when he saw the police swarming towards him, had shouted, “This is it!” and drew a pistol from his jacket.
That the motorcade route had been changed the day Kennedy arrived, whereas it had been announced well in advance of November 22 and was even printed on the front page of the Dallas Morning News. †
Stone has Garrison in the court room describe the shell castings from the Carcano rifle being found in Oswald’s impromptu sniper’s nest by the sixth floor window of the Book Depository as lying neatly side by side implying that they were planted.
That they were in fact found scattered fades to irrelevance, when one questions the glaring tautology Stone first establishes then passes over; that the cunning powers which orchestrated the intricate murder of a president while ingeniously misdirecting the guilt onto their innocuous patsy Oswald would also be as clumsy and amateurish as to lay the shell castings trimly in line.
Either we are dealing with a formidable Machiavellian cabal possessing the wherewithal to coerce men and events in an intricate web of deadly deceit, or we’re dealing with the gang who couldn’t assassinate straight.
You can’t have it both ways.
This is an example of just one of many minute distortions found in JFK.
Stone’s presenting the “smoke on the Grassy Knoll” as indication of another shooter is a more momentous manipulation of events.
Early in the days of firearms, battlefields would be engulfed in black, blinding clouds of gunpowder. But this era came to an end with the introduction of smokeless powder in 1907.
Though not literally smokeless the discharge of a rifle would henceforth be all but invisible, and the notion of a shot producing a great billowing cloud of “smoke” completely anachronistic; a reality which Stone discovered in filming the Grassy Knoll scene.
As firing a 6.5 caliber Carcano, the rifle type employed by Oswald did not result in a discernible, yet alone filmable, puff of gun powder, Stone and his special effects crew resorted to using larger and larger calibers of rifles.
Still, in firing them all, no visible cloud was emitted.
So Stone ordered a bellows constructed, a huge contraption, that would spew out smoke highlighted by talcum powder. That is what substituted for the “smoke” that spews out of the trees from the Grassy Knoll shooter in JFK.
As the above story implies the majority of the conspiracy-minded know nothing about firearms nor have had much experience handling them.
They are also ignorant, and generally choose to remain so, about the marksmanship of Oswald.
Marine rifle training lasts two weeks and is then followed by the qualification course. The course requires recruits to fire fifty rounds at multiple targets from 200, 300 and 500 yards. Each round earns between 1 and 5 points with the maximum possible score of 250.
A Marksman must score 190 points, a Sharpshooter needs 210 points, and 220 points or above earns the distinction of Expert for the shooter.
A quick sidebar:
On the first of August 1966, three years after the Kennedy assassination, Charles Whitman, a 25 year old engineering student, stabbed his wife and mother to death while they slept.
He then packed a footlocker with a Remington 700 6mm bolt-action hunting rifle, a .35 caliber pump rifle, a 12-guage shotgun, a .30 caliber carbine M1, a 9mm Luger pistol, a Galesi-Brescia .25-caliber Italian pistol and a Smith & Wesson M19 .357 Magnum (as favored by Dirty Harry), over 700 rounds of ammunition, coffee, vitamins, Excedrin, earplugs, water bottles, matches, lighter fluid, rope, binoculars, a machete, three knives, a transistor radio, toilet paper, a razor and Ban roll-on deodorant.
In the guise of a school repairman Whitman lugged his footlocker up to the 28th floor Observation Deck of University of Texas in Austin where he proceeded to methodically pick off 40 targets on the campus and nearby streets, killing 11.
Some of his victims were hit from over a quarter of a mile away.
Patrolman Billy Speed was one of the first law officials to arrive at the university. He took cover behind a waist high wall of columned stones enclosing a pedestal statue of Jefferson Davis. Whitman fired a shot through the six inch gap separating two of the columns killing Speed.
Whitman had made the shot from 1,500 feet, or 500 yards, away.
Oswald was 88 yards from Kennedy.
Both Whitman and Oswald were Marine trained.
Both had qualified as Sharpshooters.
In reality, what stands out as exceptional in regards to Oswald’s actions is not that two of his bullets found their mark with such lethal accuracy, but that he missed on his first shot.
But then Oswald’s first shot at General Walker also missed.
You’ll find no reference to Oswald’s first attempt at assassination in JFK, and most conspiracy theorists labor to disregard it or dismiss it.
One historian has called the Walker shooting the Rossetti Stone to the assassination of Kennedy.
Google it if interested. *
It is interesting the actors both films attracted.
JFK : Kevin Costner, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau, and Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw. Garrison has a cameo in JFK as Earl Warren, and David Perry appears as a bar patron.
Parkland: Marcia Gay Harden, Zac Efron, Ron Livingston, Colin Hanks, James Badge Dale, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti and Jackie Earle Haley.
Business-wise I suppose Parkland was a flop. Hopefully this will be amended by word
of mouth arising from the DVD release. It certainly deserves as such.
I can’t say I found any performances in JFK to be as moving as even the slightest performance in Parkland.
Perhaps because there is no emotional honesty in JFK.
The moments in Parkland all carry weight.
James Badge Dale as Robert Oswald, Lee Harvey’s older brother especially so. Robert Oswald who still resides outside of Dallas. Who never changed his name or denied his relation to Lee Harvey, and who never doubted his brother’s guilt in the assassination.
In reading other reviews of Parkland my distain for critics only grows.
One compares it with JFK and praises Stone’s film for giving a “challenging and compelling reading of the tragedy’s nature” instead of Parkland’s concentrating on just “the facts.”
Those facts are called “history.”
It is regrettable that most Americans are not taught how to think.
If they were, they would understand that a major component of logical reasoning is captured in the sentence:
“Extraordinary statements demand extraordinary proof.”
Man has travelled to the moon is an extraordinary, and despite the lunatic-fringe claim it was all shot on a Hollywood sound stage there is a mountain of extraordinary proof to support it. (Not the least being if it had been done on a sound stage the production values would have been better.)
That President Ronald Reagan, in violation of his constitutional oath, circumvented congress and illegally funded a foreign paramilitary force through the sale of weapons to terrorist organizations is an extraordinary claim which is also substantiated by extraordinary evidence.
That the murder of John F. Kennedy was a right wing conspiracy which was covered up by the Warren Commission and the government lacks, and has lacked for over fifty years now, any “extraordinary proof” providing validation.
There has only been rumors, half-truths, misinformation and the rants of bottom feeders. (Mark Lane comes to mind.)
Without that extraordinary proof it is as foolish to accept a right wing plot killed Kennedy as it is to believe he was killed by a cabal of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny or of The Girl Scots of America and Danny Kaye, or of Nixon and the Mormons – oops!
That last one actually is a conspiracy theory.
Parkland ends with the figure of Robert Oswald walking from his brother’s gravesite up the incline of a small hill, blurring as he climbs, shedding the firm strong outlines of reality as history dissolves into myth.
Parkland ends where the hijacking of history begins.
Landesman has a reporter’s dedication to facts, and that makes Parkland a far more important film than JFK.
Not to argue that JFK is not a masterpiece when it comes to achieving the filmmaker’s intent, for it certainly is.
And in this regard JFK and Oliver Stone stand comparison with another great filmmaker and his masterpiece: D.W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation (1915).
Both films are “Histories” crafted by their filmmaker’s perspective.
Both were hugely successful.
Both were bulls_ _ _.
Landesman seems to hold to the old adage, “That the truth shall set you free.”
Unfortunately I don’t.
The strength of conspiracy-theories, religions, Fox News and the decimation of the American Conservative movement in concert with the demonization of Liberalism in this country all conducted by a multitude of unaligned forces with nothing in common but myopic self-serving agendas leads me to a harsher opinion of humanity.
“That when a lie becomes comfortable, we never look for the truth.”
But if you want to look for the truth Parkland is an excellent starting point.
(I’ve included a few others below that can be found on line.)
The JFK 100: One Hundred Errors of Fact and Judgment in Oliver Stone’s JFK by David Reitzes
The Kennedy Assassination Home Page John McAdams’ superb site exploring all facets of the Dallas shooting.
* Something else you can view if interested is “The Magic Bullet” the second episode of the first season of “Forensic Files” on YouTube. Much is made, and a good bit of misinformation tossed about on the Kennedy “magic bullet”, mostly by individuals who have no appreciation for what bullets are capable of. The “Forensic Files” episode gives an insightful look at the incredible trajectory a bullet took to kill a young man sitting inside an indoor shooting range. Ironically enough, the range was in Dallas, and he was taken to Parkland Hospital. This alone will have the conspiracy-minded dismissing the entire event as part of a plot.
** For those who spent any time in philosophy classes, you may recall Aristotle’s Law of Non-contradiction, which states nothing can be both “so” and “not so” at the same time. For the conspiracy-minded this is a law often trampled on. As here, quoting the Warren Report as a reliable source, and dismissing it elsewhere as a pack of lies.
*** Scandals, Scamps, and Scoundrels by James Phelan
N American Grotesque by James Kirkwood
† There are those who back the conspiracies theories that are adamant the route published by The Dallas Morning News and the one Kennedy took are different. I have twenty copies (yes – 20!) in my possession that proves them wrong on this point.
Parkland is available on DVD, Blu-ray (Millenium Entertainment) and online streaming venues: