The Austin Chronicle

SXSW Film Review: The Lady Bird Diaries

By Josh Kupecki, March 17, 2023, 1:20pm, Picture in Picture

Culled from 123 hours of audio diaries made by Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson during her husband’s presidency from 1963 until 1969, Dawn Porter’s doc provides an immersive tour of one of the most turbulent decades in American history from a fascinating vantage point.

Based on Julia E. Schweig’s 2021 biographical recontextualization Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, The Lady Bird Diaries is visually composed of nothing but archival footage, with a handful of animated sequences giving flesh to phone conversations, and the audio is all Lady Bird.

As LBJ was sworn in on an airplane fleeing Dallas on that November day in 1963, the shock of her new role was acute. “It was like going onstage for a role I never rehearsed,” she said. But soon enough, she is giving notes and a letter grade to her husband’s press conference appearances (she studied as both a journalist and teacher), and finds her footing as a first lady.

Through the passage of the Civil Rights acts, the Voting Rights act, and the Medicare Act, there was no shortage of intensity in Johnson’s presidency, not to mention the entire year of 1968, but it was Vietnam that plagued the man. Diaries illuminates the many faces of Lady Bird: empathetic wife to her husband’s depression, keen observer of the people in power around the president, and a strong moral compass. Porter’s doc does much to remove the false perception that Lady Bird was merely Southern Belle who wanted to plant a bunch of flowers by the side of American highways.

It is by design that the film’s singular viewpoint lacks a larger context, but there are times when other perspectives would have been welcome. Nevertheless, as a portrait of a public figure reassessed during a seminal chapter of American history, The Lady Bird Diaries is an essential addition to the record.

The Lady Bird Diaries

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere

Don't miss our interview with director Dawn Porter, "Lady Bird Johnson Documentary Reveals the Legendary First Lady's Wonk Side," March 10.

Catch up with all of The Austin Chronicle's SXSW 2023 coverage.

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