JFK assassination conspiracy theorists will have much to argue about after viewing writer-director Mark Sobel’s curious, sepulchral “The Commission,” though they may feel somewhat let down by the pic’s strict dramatization of known and recently uncovered transcripts of the Warren Commission hearings, with no attempt — to its credit — to posit any theories of its own. However, despite the presence of an impressive-sounding company of thesps working in uptight, ultra-gravitas mode, pic’s impenetrable layers of information will leave auds awfully hard to come by outside of grassy knoll-it-alls.
Pedantic, docu-like opening graphics roll explains that “The Commission” doesn’t seek an answer regarding JFK’s killer(s), but it does want to shed light on what happened during the months of hearings in 1964 overseen by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (Alan Charof).
Since Sobel’s adherence to transcripts allows little or no personal character asides, it’s left to phone calls between Sen. Richard Russell (Martin Landau) and new President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ’s actual voice, spliced into the soundtrack) to allow brief glimpses into the stress endured by commission members. These phone calls begin and end the film, but the human moments they offer are all too rare, as the film proceeds with a glacial, somnambulistic quality that works against urgency.
The edited transcript repped here indicates LBJ’s concern of a Communist conspiracy behind the assassination, and how this spurs Warren and his panel to rush through the gathering of evidence and its evaluation. This leads to several quandaries, including contradictions in FBI and medical reports — not least of which is the revelation that Oswald may have been an FBI undercover recruit. Sobel’s implicit critique of the commission is not that it was an inherently corrupt body (as many have charged), but that it was pressured by time and expediency to not examine the welter of evidence in detail.
This version of the Warren Commission is guided less by Warren himself than by its general counsel, J. Lee Rankin (Sam Waterston), a generally obscure figure who comes to dominate the movie. He steers the group away from grilling the FBI too deeply about Oswald, and toward consideration of such oddities as how Oswald’s widow Marina was in discussions about a movie deal with a screenwriter and a studio. Rankin’s legal staff works behind the scenes, poring over testimony and dictating analysis that asks loads of skeptical questions that never get fully answered by the commission, ranging from Dallas police tactics to confusing autopsy evidence.
There may be some stunners sprinkled throughout “The Commission,” but these are undermined by the combination of the film’s aggressive and overwhelming wordiness (again, a result of the reliance on transcripts) and its rather crude filmmaking. There’s an intriguing hint of Orson Welles’ working methods with Sobel, not only in his taste for black-and-white and for low- and high-angle shots, but in shooting manner, which sometimes had actors sharing a scene together actually lensed at separate times. Yet even this is inconsistently applied, and the soundtrack’s rough mix of mismatched dialogue and post-dubbings is hard on the ears.
As the conscience of the commission, Landau’s Russell hints at a deeper disturbance that history is being altered, but like the rest of the cast, he’s hampered by the film’s text. Waterston plays Rankin just a shade away from his Jack McCoy character on “Law & Order,” while Ed Asner has some fun licking his chops as a Dallas homicide cop. Martin Sheen as Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach is perhaps the most oddly used in the cast, filmed silently but speaking in voice-over commentary.