2017, R, 98 min. Directed by Rob Reiner. Starring Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, C. Thomas Howell, Jeffrey Donovan, Rich Sommer.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 3, 2017
The biographical drama LBJ treads much of the territory Robert Schenkkan’s expertly crafted stage play All the Way traversed in chronicling the early years of the Johnson presidency. Like the Tony Award-winning production (subsequently filmed as an HBO movie), it spends much of its time focused on the 36th president’s risky decision to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act of heresy in the eyes of Southern congressmen who mistakenly presumed him as their philosophical (read: racist) brethren, given his Texas roots. No wonder the movie feels something like a retread: It gets you there, but the ride is neither nowhere as smooth, nor nearly as compelling. Using the fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, to frame a series of flashbacks depicting LBJ’s frustrated tenure as JFK’s VP until an assassin’s bullet promotes him to president, this earnest biopic sketchily communicates this consummate politician’s skills through little more than folksy humor and the occasional swear word, without really ever giving the genius of his ability to work both sides of the aisle its due. It's LBJ-lite, with a quarter of the political calories.
The movie is far more interested in attempting to plumb the psychology of this often misunderstood chief executive by underscoring the insecurities that informed his homespun bluster, a sensitivity that magnified in the shadow of the handsome and charismatic Kennedy brothers. (Here, the legendary friction between LBJ and Robert Kennedy plays out like a fight on a D.C. playground, with the latter coming off like a little pissant.) Indeed, the most riveting moments in the film occur in those shell-shocked hours in Dallas following John Kennedy’s death, when Johnson must assume a role he’s long coveted but never dreamed of undertaking under such tragic circumstances. In these quiet scenes, Harrelson (in a frequently distracting makeup job – those ears!) throws off the yoke of Lone Star yokel and becomes something more three-dimensional, adeptly conveying how LBJ delicately navigated the heartbreaking aftermath of the assassination with the nation’s welfare foremost in mind. Unfortunately, this narrative shift eventually becomes a platform for lionizing Johnson in the grand fashion of one of those hoary Hollywood studio biographies that showcased noble selflessness as the greatest attribute in any human being, all to the accompaniment of a swelling inspirational score. It’s a sentimentality that would provoke even an ol’ softie like Johnson to let loose with a profanity or two.