Rob Reiner made such a lasting impression as Archie Bunker’s bonehead son-in-law on the old All in the Family series that a lot of people still fail to accept him for the gifted director he has become. A dedicated bearer of flags for liberal causes and a political activist who puts his brains and beliefs where his heart is, he’s turned out comedies and bareknuckle dramas with equal precision. Not one of his finest accomplishments, LBJ, his biopic about Lyndon B. Johnson, is less revealing as the character study of a ruthless, ambitious accidental president than as an under-investigated history lesson. Still, Woody Harrelson in the title role has enough spice to keep the viewer alert and attentive. That’s more than I can say about most of the junk that greets the year-end 2017 holiday season.
Johnson was a colorless figure on the political fringe who inherited the position as the most powerful man on the planet at a time when U.S. history was ready to implode. After the course of world history was plunged into darkness by John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November, 1963, it fell immediately to Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson to claim the mantle of Commander-in-Chief. No other president of the last century began his time in office under such daunting circumstances, and the turmoil he inherited was paralyzing. Not only did he take on the civil rights movement, but the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The closure still hangs in the balance, with movies about slavery and TV shows about backstage White House chicanery still dominating screens and airwaves. LBJ falls somewhere between Selma and House of Cards.
Focusing somewhere on the years before the murder of JFK (played by Jeffrey Donovan), the film shows Johnson as he mulls over his own run for the occupation of the oval office in 1960, eventually settling for second in command. Feuding with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who disliked his cornpone Southern voice and mannerisms intensely, Johnson had already practiced studying the bumps in the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue before the tragedy in Dallas, but for a more revealing and comprehensive look as what it was like behind the scenes between the Kennedy assassination and the reluctant swearing in of Johnson, you get a superior picture in the film Jackie. Without melodrama, gossip or dramatic shock value (when all three would have made a more fascinating movie), Reiner chooses a follow-the-dots approach, depicting a gruff, burly man with little appeal and no glamour trying to lead a nation still grieving the loss of the beloved Jack Kennedy. He grapples with urgent calls for social justice from Martin Luther King, Jr. He faces the lurking threat of Bobby Kennedy’s animosity. He knows his wife Lady Bird (a totally wasted Jennifer Jason Leigh, trapped behind a prosthetic nose), and his daughters Lucy Baines and Lynda Bird all lack the public acceptance of previous First Family celebrities, but he plunges on like a pit bull with blinders on, fighting the war on poverty without much outside help. Unfortunately, he does it all without much charm.
This is where Woody Harrelson comes in. His overwrought and unevenly applied makeup is distracting and he looks nothing like Johnson, but you get used to the miscasting. Harrelson stomps his way through the character’s inferiorities and nerves with the vulgar, forceful “up yours!” spirit that was characteristic of the president. Although Harrelson is watchable and interesting, his characterization of Johnson as a grumpy, petulant Daddy figure doesn’t exactly elevate or enhance a conventional screenplay by Joey Hartstone that can only be labeled perfunctory. I would have been much more keen on finding out what it really felt like for this Texas farmer to become president without a mandate, and pass landmark legislation with nothing much more than sheer guts. How did he sleep at night knowing he was hugely distrusted and considered something of a joke? What were his intimate family moments like? He didn’t do it alone, yet the credits (which seem to go on for days) list scores of actors playing essentially walk-on parts in characters like Hubert Humphrey, McGoerge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, Pierre Salinger and numerous U.S. senators, Congressmen and secret service agents. I think Rob Reiner owes us more, much more.
LBJ grips, but not enough to captivate an audience that has already pretty much forgotten both the man and the president. We need more than the slight dusting off of a closed file on an often-maligned politician who came along at a critical turning point in American history. Like the man, the movie LBJ also comes along at a critical turning point—in movie history. I’m sorry to call it a respectable disappointment, when it could have been so much more.