The Tom Hanks/Peter Landesman film of Vincent Bugliosi's abridged book Four Days in November does something that most knowledgeable observers would think impossible. It makes the assassination of President Kennedy boring. Which is a negative achievement for two reasons. First, with its intrinsic materials, how could that be so? Second, the historical import of that event has proven to be rather gigantic. How could anyone make it dull?
To briefly answer both questions: 1) The film's writer and director, Mr. Landesman, did not use the full array of materials available to him as a screenwriter. He did not even come close. As per point number 2, the historical import of the event is something that is just about completely left out. Which should tell us all something about the image of Hanks as the amateur historian.
To begin at the start: celebrated attorney Vincent Bugliosi wrote a rather large book on the Kennedy assassination in 2007 entitled Reclaiming History. Considering the advance he was paid, and the publicity the volume had, the book did not do very well. Therefore, the book was cut down in size rather significantly. It was reissued as Four Days in November. This was a chronicle contained in the original book that was an attempt to capture the assassination and its immediate aftermath in a quasi-novelistic form. Although Tom Hanks and his production company Playtone purchased the rights to Reclaiming History, they chose to make a film out of only that rather small portion of the book. Which, of course, would lend itself most easily to the making of a feature film.
Peter Landesman was a rather odd choice by Playtone to both write and direct the film. Previously, Landesman had been an investigative journalist for the New York Times. Prior to him writing and directing Parkland, he had never directed a film or written a produced screenplay before. That Hanks, and his partner Gary Goetzman, chose him to do both functions on this film tells us one of two things. Either there is a story behind his choice that is not evident right now, or the partners did not think very much of the project from the start. Of course, it may be a combination of both.
Landesman was stuck in a difficult position from the start. From the looks of the film, there was not a big production budget. Therefore, there are no big crowd scenes or set pieces in the film. Even though the story easily lends itself to both. Further, there does not seem -at least to this viewer-to have been any real attempt to compensate for this with either matte drawings, special effects, or computer generated imagery (CGI). Consequently, the production value resembles a TV or cable film. To use one example, the actual assassination of Kennedy in Dealey Plaza is not recreated. To use another, we see Jack Ruby kill Oswald through a black and white TV set. Production value does not guarantee quality. But it usually means some kind of interesting visuals to look at. In that regard, the film is quite prosaic.
In retrospect, those two scenes were rather necessary to jab up interest. Because everything else in the film is pretty much talking heads stuff. And on top of that, its not even interesting talk. Landesman was limited by the fact that-with a few exceptions--he was working from the Warren Commission rendition of that weekend. He limits himself to four story threads:
- The treatment at Parkland Hospital of both President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald after they are shot.
- The story of Abraham Zapruder taking his film of Kennedy's assassination.
- The interplay between Oswald's brother Robert, and his mother Marguerite.
- The realization at FBI headquarters in Dallas that the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had been in their office two weeks before the murder.
One of the problems with the script is that these four elements, as presented, really do not add up to a cohesive dramatic whole. At least not the way they are presented here. Zapruder was never at the hospital. Robert Oswald did not know about Lee going into the FBI office, or that the Bureau had a file on his brother. Therefore, the strands of the story do not interweave into any kind of layered mosaic, let alone a cumulative dramatic effect. They are simply strands of a larger story that we watch unfold before us. And ultimately there is no real payoff dramatically, thematically, or visually at the end. Consequently, the picture has no real overall architecture to it. We simply watch a set of scenes play out before us until Kennedy's body is flown out of Dallas on Air Force One.
But what makes it even worse is that there are no surprises along the way. None. For anyone who knows anything about the events of that weekend, there is nothing new here, except what Landesman has invented, which is an issue we will get to later. But beyond that, there isn't even any real dexterity or suppleness to the way he has handled it all. There is not one memorable shot or scene in the picture. The film could have had a surface skill with some razzle-dazzle editing. But that is absent also.
But further, Landesman has not even made the most of what he chose to present from Four Days in November. To use one example: the negotiations between Dick Stolley and Zapruder for his film gave Landesman a nice opportunity for some interesting interplay and some character development of Zapruder. Because as Stolley has related, Zapruder understood the monetary value of his film and he scoffed at Stolley's first offer to him. Later, because of his Jewish background, Zapruder was advised to conceal the size of the stipend and also contribute the first installment to officer J. D. Tippit's widow. Well, Landesman shows none of this. Also, there was another interesting source of dramatic conflict and repartee available. This was the contest between the Secret Service and the local Dallas authorities over where the autopsy of the president would be done. Local coroner Earl Rose demanded that Texas law be upheld and that it be done in Dallas under his control. The Secret Service, along with representatives from the White House, insisted the autopsy be done in Washington. This could have been a really interesting scene because some of the dialogue could have been really sharp, and it also gave Landesman an opportunity for some interesting character development. It reduces to some prosaic conversation and a pushing match at the hospital. When, in fact, it went beyond the characters depicted here and also the single location.
The part of the story which Landesman mishandled most was probably the Hosty/FBI/Oswald strand. In fact, he does not depict a powerful scene to introduce that aspect. In his book, Assignment: Oswald, Hosty provided Landesman with a fine opening to that strand. Hosty had just seen Kennedy pass by him on the motorcade route at Main and Field streets. He then walked into a favorite restaurant of his, the Oriental Cafe. He ordered a cheese sandwich and coffee. He was eating the sandwich when the waitress told him that Kennedy had been shot. This is how Hosty describes this scene in his book:
The cheese sandwich in my mouth turned to sawdust. I pushed back from the counter where I was eating lunch, and swallowed hard. I choked out, "What did you say?"
"Oh my God, they've shot the president!" the waitress said. She was sobbing and her body was shaking.
Without thinking, I took out my wallet, put a couple of dollars on the diner counter, and pushed my way out of the front door onto the sidewalk and the intersection of Murphy and Main.
Such a scene is made to order for adaptation to a film. It has movement to it, human interest, and dramatic impact. Apparently, Landesman did not think so. Because it's not in the movie.
But further, the way the issue of Oswald and the FBI is introduced in the film is also different than how it is introduced in Hosty's book. In Assignment: Oswald Hosty tells a colleague that he had control of the Oswald file. His partner tells him to get the file and tell the man in charge, Gordon Shanklin about it. Hosty does so and presents the file, including a new translation of a letter Oswald allegedly wrote to the Soviet embassy in Washington. Shanklin is on the phone with Washington and he tells Hosty that they want him to get to the police headquarters and extend as much help as he can. He does so. That's it. It was all pretty cut and dried.
Hosty then describes meeting up with Oswald while he was being interrogated by the police. Hosty says that Oswald admitted leaving him a note at FBI headquarters. The note had been passed onto him by receptionist Nannie Lee Fenner. According to Hosty it had been dropped off by Oswald about two weeks before while Oswald was at the FBI office. Hosty depicts the contents as saying:
If you want to talk to me, you should talk to me to my face. Stop harassing my wife, and stop trying to ask her about me. You have no right to harass her.
Hosty writes that this meant little to him since he thought that both Marina Oswald and Lee were legitimate objects of interest for the FBI. Since Marina had an uncle who was an officer in Soviet intelligence who she had lived with, and Lee had been a Marine who defected to the USSR in 1959 and then returned. In fact, in his book, Hosty makes a case that Marina bore all the earmarks of a "sleeper agent" and that the Warren Commission ordered the FBI to wiretap her phone. This part of the story is completely lost on Landesman since Marina Oswald barely figures in the film at all. For all the impact she has in the picture, she might as well be an extra.
In the film, when Shanklin finds out about the note, Landesman pulls out all the stops and essentially has Shanklin blaming Hosty for the assassination. Yet, in Hosty's book Shanklin is upset mainly because of the problem the note will create with Director J. Edgar Hoover, who was very public relations conscious. And the scene is not nearly as loud or boisterous as it is in the film. At the end, when Shanklin orders Hosty to rip up the note, again this differs from Hosty's description. In the film, it appears that he is ripping up and flushing down the toilet the entire Dallas Oswald file. But yet, according to Hosty, it was really only the original unsigned note and a cover memo he dictated on the night of the assassination.
But further, there is another excellent scene in Hosty's book which Landesman could have utilized, and again, inexplicably, he did not. On Sunday morning, after it had been announced that Oswald would be transferred from the Dallas Police jail to the country jail, Shanklin called several agents into his office. He wanted them to be his witnesses. He then called the Dallas Police and talked to Chief Jesse Curry. Shanklin told him that he should not transfer Oswald at this time. He said, "You know it's my recommendation that you cancel those plans and try something else." Curry declined the offer and Shanklin replied, "Well, I just wanted to warn you again."
In and of itself this would have been a tense and dramatic scene. But Hosty then supplies a capper. Right after Oswald was killed Hosty was going up the stairs in the FBI building when he learned from a partner named Ken Howe that Oswald had just been shot by Jack Ruby. Howe then shouted, "And we told those police!" Hosty then describes his own reaction:
I was stunned. My mouth opened, but no words emerged. Howe shoved me aside and charged up the stairs. My knees buckled and I collapsed on the stairs. My head was reeling and my lungs tightened. I couldn't believe it ... I must have remained there on the stairs a few seconds ... Somehow I got to my desk and let my body slump into the chair ... I pulled a couple of papers together, put them in front of me on my desk, and stared at them. I didn't want to read them. I wanted to be left alone so that my mind could adjust to this latest blast. I sat, then sat some more, feeling the world had gone mad. (pgs. 56-57)
Again, is this not heaven sent for a screenwriter? Apparently, Landesman didn't think so.
Because Landesman shoved such interesting character development scenes aside, there really is not much for his cast to work with. And this includes some rather capable actors like Marcia Gay Harden as Nurse Doris Nelson, Billy Bob Thornton as Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels, James Badge Dale as Robert Oswald, Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, and Jacki Weaver as Marguerite Oswald. Giamatti is a skilled, imaginative, and technically sound actor. But Landesman is so constricted in his writing and characterization that Giamatti – who was affecting in Sideways – simply has little to work with. Weaver, who showed a wide range from Animal Kingdom to Silver Linings Playbook, does her best in what is clearly meant by Landesman to be a caricature. To her credit, the 40 year veteran of stage and screen underplays it so it's not offensive.
Of course, then there is the obvious tailoring Landesman did to apparently satisfy the producers. The audience does not see the powerful and incredibly fast backward movement of Kennedy's body, even though the Zapruder film is shown twice. There is no mention or viewing of the large hole in the rear of Kennedy's head at Parkland Hospital, even though Dr. Charles Carrico and Dr. Kemp Clark, who both saw it, are depicted in the film. (In a bit of irony, Clark is played by Gary Grubbs, who was Al Oser in Oliver Stone's JFK.) At the end, Landesman tells us that Jim Hosty was transferred to Kansas City after the assassination. But he does not tell us why. It was part of a mass disciplining by Hoover for the FBI's failure in not placing Oswald on the Secret Service's Security Index prior to Kennedy's visit. Also at the end, Landesman says that Robert Oswald always believed that Lee had shot Kennedy. This is not really accurate. Robert told the Warren Commission that he was shocked when he heard the news, that he could not find any reason why Lee would do such a thing, and was not sure if Lee could have done such a thing. Later he did become a true believer in the Warren Commission view. Further, the idea that, one the night of the assassination, Marguerite said she was going to write a book about Lee is far-fetched.
The sum total of the film is so limp, banal, and uninspired that, one really has to ask: Why did Landesman take this on in the first place? But further, why did Hanks go through with it on the big screen? Something like this was more cozily housed on cable TV. That's how reductive of a gigantic subject this film is.
Oliver Stone was assailed from all quarters when he made his striking and compelling film JFK in 1991. But yet, to compare these two works is to see what a valuable contribution the earlier film was. The script of JFK, by Zachary Sklar and Stone, includes about ten times the information that this film does. And because the script is complex and multi-layered, it gives the actors a chance to really flesh out and open up their characters. Cinematically, there is no comparison between the two films. In editing, photography, pace, and camera movement, Stone's film is rocket miles ahead. And finally, the Stone-Sklar film performs a historical function for the public. It makes them ask questions about an epochal event about their past. Which is what the best historical films do e.g. The Battle of Algiers, Z, and Danton. The worst thing one can say about this Hanks/Landesman/Bugliosi production is that the only question one would pose while watching it is this: When is this snoozefest over?
But don't take my word for it. Next month, JFK will be re-released in certain markets. Go ahead and compare the two yourself.