What We Know for Certain About JFK

Peter Landesman's debut film 'Parkland' puts the spotlight on the people who were in the shadows on the fateful day of JFK's assassination. He tells Haaretz about his investigation.

Ariela Bankir
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Ariela Bankir

Five decades have passed since the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, yet public interest in the affair is still high thanks to the many books, articles, television series and films depicting the assassination. This list has now been joined by Parkland, the first film by American journalist Peter Landesman starring Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton and Marcia Gay Harden, which had its debut screening at this year's Venice Festival.

Unlike other films in the genre (such as Oliver Stone’s JFK from 1991), which focused on the affair’s political aspects and on various conspiracy theories, Landesman chose to focus on the personal aspect, presenting the story of several seemingly marginal figures involved in the murder.

In an interview with Haaretz, Landesman said that he decided to turn the spotlight on to the people who had remained in the shadows and did not tell their story as part of the massive inquiry into the events surrounding the assassination. These include the surgeon who attended to President Kennedy after he was taken to Parkland Hospital in Dallas (which lent the film its title), the head nurse in the emergency room, the FBI agent who knew Lee Harvey Oswald, the chief of the Secret Service, members of the presidential guard and cameraman Abraham Zapruder, who unwittingly captured the assassination on film.

The Israeli public may find the film interesting for another reason − the similarity between the Kennedy assassination and that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The many Israelis who felt confused and traumatized following Rabin’s murder will find it easy to identify with many moments in the film.

Landesman, born in New York, has worked as an investigative reporter in war zones for the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly and other American publications. The transition from writing to directing was a natural development in his career, which he in fact began as a painter − in Israel.

“I lived in Israel for a while and I have Hebrew tattoos all over my body,” he smiles and removed his jacket to show some of the tattoos, including the words “Masada” and “Nahman.” He moved to Israel at the age of 27, driven by the dream of living and creating here as an artist. After returning to the U.S. he retained his Israeli connection, not least through his wife, a Russian-American woman who had lived in Israel between the ages of eight and 19.

As a war-zone reporter Landesman investigated subjects such as the arms trade and trafficking in women, producing reports that mentioned Israel, among other places. At present he is developing a mini-series on Masada, in collaboration with Channel 2 operator Keshet and the Ridley Scott production company.

He says he is trying to live his life in accordance with the principles of the Masada story. “Not the suicide, of course,” he says, “but rather the idea of doing things to the utmost.”

He tattooed the word “Masada” on his body while fighting a custody battle following a divorce. He says that although born in New York, he tried always to be connected to his “tribal cultural legacy,” which had been inaccessible for him before the age of 40, when he met his rabbi, a veteran of the U.S. Army, and reconnected with his roots. “I’m a Zionist, a believer. Israel is a very important place for me geographically and spiritually,” he says.

Shedding new light

Landesman explains that he chose to focus on the personal narratives of lesser-known figures in order to avoid the unsolved questions surrounding the JFK assassination, and deal with what we know for certain: the confusion and chaos experienced on that fateful day. The work on a film of this kind, which addresses a highly charged subject that has already been examined from every possible angle, required a meticulous investigation. The investigation was based, says Landesman, on Victor Bugliosi’s Four Days in November, a major work published in 2008 after three decades of research. To this Landesman added his own research, making use of archives and for the dialogues relied on materials such as the recorded conversations between the Oswald brothers at the police station.

The most interesting parts of the work were the minor details revealed in the course of the investigation, which shed a new light on the various figures involved. When he read about Jim Hosty, the FBI agent from the Dallas office (played by Ron Livingston), he was shocked to discover that FBI agents had been following Oswald and after the murder they destroyed files with information about him in order to avoid embarrassment.

He says that the 40 minutes that passed from the moment Kennedy arrived at the emergency room provided many Shakespearean moments. “It was like King Lear. The doctors, the secret agents, the priest, Jackie Kennedy standing there holding splinters of her husband’s skull, the young intern who thought the president had come in with the flu,” he said. “It was interesting to see how different people reacted and dealt with the trauma.”

Although the subject is largely absent from the film, Landesman has no problem discussing the conspiracies surrounding the murder. “It interests people, they make money from it. The murder created the idea of conspiracy in American culture because the other option, the possibility that a sick little asshole killed the most important man in the world, a man who had already reached a kind of canonical status in his life, was too hard to stomach. People will rise up against the idea that that’s what happened. They’ll want another explanation. There are stories, and I’ve seen this as a journalist, that are too true to tell. People just don’t want to know. It’s hard to understand evil − think of what’s going on now in Syria. So we tell ourselves a story, a narrative that serves as a bridge between ourselves and the truth.”

Parkland director Peter Landesman, in navy blue, on the set.Credit: United King Films
Parkland director Peter Landesman, in navy blue, on the set.Credit: United King Films
Parkland director Peter Landesman, in navy blue, on the set.Credit: United King Films

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