Afew years ago, Hollywood star Tom Hanks handed Four Days in November, Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to Peter Landesman. Hanks thought it might make an interesting feature-film debut for the journalist, who eventually wrote and directed Parkland, a fact-based ensemble drama about lives transformed by the events that transpired in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Landesman spoke to The Globe and Mail last week about the movie, which is now in theatres.
There are few intersections of American history that have seen more traffic than Dallas’s Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. Why go back there?
The Kennedy assassination is one of the two really seminal moments in modern American history, the other being 9/11. And the Kennedy assassination has never really been a story that’s been told. We’ve been told the fairy tale and the mythology and the speculation. Our movie ends before any of that speculation begins. Parkland, if an audience allows it to wash over them, is a revelation.
But this story’s been told many times.
I mean the emotionally true story. I was near the Towers on the morning of 9/11 and before and after that I was a journalist and a war correspondent and spent a lot of time around people in jeopardy, people to whom violence is being done. You know, the panic and disorientation of it. To me that’s the truth of a powerful cataclysmic event. Not the speculation, not the retrospective mythology, but the actual experience of surviving it.
The tone of the movie is very big. Lots of big music, lots of big speeches. I was surprised that a movie by a journalist would be so operatic.
Well I’m a painter and I’m also a novelist and a screenwriter, so I’m many different kinds of storyteller. But even if you look at the journalism I did … they’re big stories. They’re also revelatory stories about weapons trafficking and sex trafficking. They’re big operatic, factual tales that also peel away mythology as to what’s really going on. The wars I covered in Rwanda and Kosovo and Afghanistan and Pakistan, these were big operatic moments. Did you feel it was melodramatic?
I’d say in the hysterical character of Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, in the speech given by Billy Bob Thornton when he sees the Zapruder film, in some the scenes with Jackie Kennedy…
You know the funny thing about Marguerite Oswald, she was a redneck who put on airs. So what you feel is big and operatic is actually what she was like. In terms of Jackie Kennedy, a woman whose husband has just died in her arms – I don’t think it gets more raw than that. So I’m not defending it, but I would say that I actually feel the opposite. I actually feel that this movie’s restrained. Look, I’ve been shot at, I’ve been among people who were dying, I’ve been surrounded by mountains of bodies and body parts in Kosovo and Rwanda and I’m here to tell you that those are moments where you feel real emotion. So I know what that’s like. And this movie didn’t really even come close to it.
You must have expected to get some criticism of your decision to tell this story the way you have.
We knew what we were going to face. One thing I will say is that this movie forces people to revise the movies they already have in their heads about this event. And the movie forces you, it really forces you and sometimes uncomfortably so, to revise that narrative. Some people will rebel against it. But I think that if one relaxes in front of it, forgets what it’s about, there’s a kind of universalism about the story. Some of the criticism has been weirdly personal. And dark. And you only get that kind of strong reaction when you touch a nerve.
This interview has been edited and condensed.