With its all-star cast and reassuring agenda, Parkland is shaping up as the feel-good event of 2013 for those who don’t want you to worry about the legacy of the American national security state. Pre-production publicity makes clear that Parkland (the hospital where JFK was declared dead) aims to breath new life into the government’s old theory that the violent removal of the liberal president from office in 1963 was a meaningless deed committed for no reason by a lunatic. Matinee message: eat your popcorn and swallow the “tragic absurdity of life.”
Is this a movie anyone really wants to see?
If nothing else Parkland, scheduled for release next fall, will enable Americans pondering the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death to escape (for 100 minutes or so) all the additional troublesome facts that have emerged in recent years, such as:
– Bobby and Jackie Kennedy privately concluded JFK was killed by domestic plotters.
–The politics, travels, and intentions of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald were well-known to senior CIA officials six weeks before JFK was killed. (Thanks to the Internet, you can read their long-suppressed October 1963 cable on Oswald here; their names appear on the last page. A non-conspiratorial explanation of their roles in the CIA food chain is provided here.)
–At least thirty four witnesses said a gunshot came from the so-called “grassy knoll” in front of JFK’s limousine, where Oswald most certainly was not.
I could add more particulars of what has emerged from the JFK files since the 1990s but not many people need convincing that the news is not good. Even with the addition of Efron, Parkland’s “lone nut” premise lacks popular appeal. The most recent poll on the subject (2003) found 75 percent of Americans don’t believe it.
Efron, set to play surgeon Charles Carrico, is no more likely to overcome this wall of disbelief than less winsome but more powerful actors who have tried before him. In 1967 CIA director Richard Helms launched a secret worldwide campaign to denigrate JFK conspiracy theorists. When his effort was exposed in the 1970s, the public’s suspicions of a CIA conspiracy against JFK naturally skyrocketed.
Parkland’s producers seek to bolster their credibility by saying the screenplay is derived from Vincent Bugliosi’s 2007 book “Reclaiming History,” another gambit that seems unlikely to persuade. To be sure, Bugliosi is a tireless researcher and an independent mind (as his indictment of George W. Bush for war crimes shows). But his under-edited 1,600-page tome does not offer a fresh narrative of the events of November 22, 1963. Rather Bugliosi hews to the Warren Commission’s jerry-built storyline while denouncing careless conspiracy-mongers and intelligent critics with indiscriminate zeal.
For example, Bugliosi dismisses John Newman, a career Army Intelligence officer turned academic historian, as a “conspiracy theorist. In his 1995 book “Oswald and the CIA,” Newman used newly-declassified CIA records to show how the agency’s supersecret Counterintelligence Staff closely monitored Oswald from October 1959 to October 1963. This evidence, Newman argued, indicated that certain CIA officers had manipulated Oswald but he refrained from offering a conspiracy theory, saying the record was incomplete and the government needed to come clean before any conclusions could be drawn about who was responsible.
But because Bugliosi is certain that all “conspiracy theorists” are misguided fools, his pigeon-holing of Newman spared him the chore of addressing the substance of Newman’s account. As for the fact that top CIA officials knew all about Oswald before JFK was killed and didn’t inform the Warren Commission, Bugliosi just ignores it. Thus his book seems less likely to provide dramatic material for the big screen than to supply a rationale for ignoring the increasingly problematic historical record. (Full disclosure: Newman is a friend and his book cites my JFK reporting.)
In this context, the choice of journalist Peter Landesman as director of Parkland is not promising either. A former New York Times correspondent, Landesman gained a reputation for overstating his case in 2004 when he wrote a Sunday Times magazine cover story on sex trafficking that drew withering scorn from press critics Jack Shafer and Daniel Radosh. Landesman responded with a mixture of bluster and blarney that did himself no favors.
Since then Landesman has transformed himself into a Hollywood player on the strength of his intelligence reporting–and he has some smart things to say about the national security sector.
In 2010, he sold one Hollywood production company on a pitch to produce a film that takes a look at an unknown arena of the spy world, which Landesman described as
a layer of operative and intelligence gathering that is virtually without oversight, directed by a small handful, who do things no one will hear of, occasionally at cross-purposes with agencies like the CIA.
As a description of U.S. national security officials who knew the most about Lee Harvey Oswald in the fall of 1963, this is spot on. But evoking this layer of the intelligence world in the context of JFK is precisely what the producers of Parkland seem determined to avoid.
On another spy film project, Landesman collaborated with the movie production wing of McClarty Associates, the plugged-in Washington advisory firm, that is advised by former U.S. intelligence officials. In such circles, pledging allegiance to the Warren Commission’s version of JFK’s murder is virtually mandatory for career advancement.
But after 50 years few Americans outside of the Washington Beltway share that kind of party-line obedience to a theory that has not aged well, to say the least. When it comes to JFK’s assassination, people don’t want conspiracy theories and they don’t want excuses. (They’ve had too much of both.) They want a plausible explanation. All the early indicators suggest Parkland is unlikely to provide it,