Billy Bob Thornton as Forrest Sorrels, the head of the...

Billy Bob Thornton as Forrest Sorrels, the head of the Secret Service in Dallas, in a scene from "Parkland." Credit: AP

"Parkland" is named for the Dallas hospital that received President John F. Kennedy after a sniper's bullet felled him during a motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963. Only a fraction of the movie takes place in the operating room, but the title is appropriate. "Parkland" is less concerned with the murder of a president than with the effect it had on bystanders, bit players and -- by extension -- a nation.

It isn't easy to realistically reconstruct such a historical event, and "Parkland" gets off to a rocky start by turning various characters into unwitting doomsayers ("It's a nice day for a motorcade," says one). Soon enough, "Parkland" settles on a more natural, less forced tone, tracking the movements of various people as they go about their day, and the shattered days that follow.

We meet more than a dozen characters, including Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who filmed the assassination with an 8-mm camera; Dallas Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), who rushed the footage to a developer; Charles Carrico (a bland Zac Efron), the first doctor to operate on Kennedy; coolheaded nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden); and FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), who realized too late that Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) was within his reach. Jacki Weaver briefly but memorably plays Oswald's bizarre, ranting mother, Marguerite, possibly the first JFK conspiracy theorist.

"Parkland," written by first-time director (and longtime journalist) Peter Landesman from Vincent Bugliosi's nonfiction book "Four Days in November," is most gripping when focusing on lesser-known details like the wedding ring Jacqueline Kennedy placed on her dead husband's finger, or the brief but bitter battle by coroner Earl Rose (Rory Cochrane) to keep the body in Dallas. If this multicharacter movie has one central hero, though, it may be Robert Oswald, played with quiet strength by James Badge Dale. More than anyone -- save Kennedy's widow -- he instantly grasps what his brother's crime means for the country -- and for himself.

PLOT The assassination of John F. Kennedy, as seen through the eyes of bystanders, insiders and other players.

RATING PG-13 (bloodshed, language)

CAST Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Ron Livingston


BOTTOM LINE No bombshell revelations here, but this re-enactment of an endlessly fascinating national trauma is filled with intriguing details and fine performances.

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