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Reporting an Assassination

"Parkland" director Peter Landesman on JFK research

By Richard Whittaker, 1:00PM, Fri. Nov. 22, 2013

Reporting an Assassination

If you've got a conspiracy theory about the JFK assassination, Peter Landesman doesn't want to know. The director of Parkland wants facts, not conjecture, and knows that's not always popular. he said, "People don't want to be disabused of their notions."

His movie, shot in Austin and released earlier this year, centers not on Kennedy himself, or even the major players on the day, but on the people caught in the whirlwind: The Dallas FBI agents, Lee Harvey Oswald's brother, and the doctors at Parkland Hospital who tried to save Kennedy.

They are people whose stories have rarely been told cinematically: For Landesman, that's an asset, since he deliberately avoided other JFK movies. He called them "not influences at all, one way or another." Many are docudramas that follow one character, while he called Oliver Stone's JFK "a wonderful audience experience. It's fascinating, it's a thriller, it's just not true." Instead, he looked to literary sources.

There are endless oceans of Kennedy books, from dry history to frothy-mouthed tirades. As his main resource, Landesman relied on Vincent Bugliosi's epic 1,648 page tome Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy : More specifically, the 450 page slab dealing specifically with the time from Air Force One entered Texas airspace to the eerie coincidence of Kennedy and Oswald being buried at the same time, four days later, A former journalist, he falls back on the terms of his old trade when he talks about the "tick tock" - the section of Bugliosi's book breaking down the how and the when. Like Landesman, Bugliosi had little time for anything else. In fact, Landesman said, "He spends most of the book debunking the conspiracy theories."

Landesman is a huge advocate for Bugliosi's work, saying, "He was robbed. He didn't get nominated for a single award." However, he also sees its limitations. "Vince's stuff gave me a great blueprint on the chronology, but not the why or the who of things."

His other major literary inspiration was the original, and in some ways, still the most definitive, recounting of that terrible day: William Manchester's Death of a President which he called "an amazing book. … Spiritually, the movie has more to do with it, because it also has that feeling of overwhelmingly interesting detail and disorientation." During the president's life, Manchester penned what became Portrait of a President, a profile for Holiday magazine that showed Kennedy as a smart, complex, sometimes prickly "On a sentence level, that book is so beautiful. Bugliosi is a prosecutor and interested in data and information and evidence. Manchester is a poetic narrator."

Yet the book also came at great cost to Manchester. "It destroyed him," said Landesman. "Jackie Kennedy gave him permission and full access. Then they read it and realized that they'd given him too much, it was too difficult, and they tried to bury the book and bury him. He had a breakdown and checked himself into a hospital for six weeks, because he was falling apart. Then the publishers sued the Kennedy family, because technically he was under contract to them. It was a huge fight, took a couple of years, for the book to come out eventually."

Manchester's book is pure Plato's Cave: Unlike Bugliosi almost five decades later, he concentrated on one fluttering moment in time. That was something Landesman emulated with Parkland: At the end, the characters are left reeling with what they have to face next. People like Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who caught the murder on film: He went from well-liked clothing manufacturer to being synonymous with one of the worst crimes in American history. "Life is just shit happening, and our response to shit happening, and mistakes and counter-mistakes," said Landesman. "Life only has narrative when we frame it and edit it and call it certain things."

Both Manchester and Buglioisi worked as reporters on the story: They had the opportunity to interview people who were there on the day. There are still some survivors, and Landesman talked to as many of them as possible. "The Zapruder family were enormously helpful, and I worked with them a lot. Dick Stolley, the Life magazine editor, is still alive and I talked with him quite a bit."

Yet, as time passes, those who saw the day in person become fewer and fewer. Landesman came at the film just as it moves from first person perspective to family lore. Yet those personal accounts still live on. "Everybody who had anything to do with this was deposed: Partly by the Warren Commission, partly by other efforts, by universities, by the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. So people's accounts were put down almost immediately, and they're raw and they're real and they're frightening.


Parkland is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD now. Read our review here. Read more of our interview with Landesman here, as he explains why Austin became his Dallas 1963.

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