Lyndon B. Johnson has been an object of some curiosity of late. Last year, Bryan Cranston played him in HBO’s All the Way and was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. John Carroll Lynch also played him last year in Jackie, the film about the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination, and three years ago Tom Wilkinson played him in Selma. The master historian Robert Caro, meanwhile, has been publishing a multi-volume magisterial biography of the 36th president for years.
It would seem, then, to be the right time for LBJ, a biographical movie that follows Johnson from his days as Senate majority leader to his unlikely and tragic route to the US presidency, unpacking a legacy defined by both his aggressive domestic agenda, including passing the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and his escalation of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. That complicated time in office and Johnson’s decision not to seek a second term is ripe for a big-screen treatment, and with Woody Harrelson leading a cast that includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, Jeffrey Donovan, and Michael Stahl-David, LBJ has the makings of a surefire hit.
But it sags, curiously. Directed by Rob Reiner from a screenplay by Joey Hartstone, the movie jumps around in time in a way that doesn’t serve the story, and it feels caught between cynicism toward and valorization of Johnson. The movie tries earnestly to recreate the looks and speaking patterns of its subjects, but all of this together results in a movie that’s more distracting than enthralling.
LBJ traces an arc through Johnson’s ascent to the presidency
Turning a biography into a good movie is a challenge, because the fact that something happened isn’t enough to make a compelling story — the writer has to find an arc within that biography and build a narrative around it. In the case of LBJ, the story is about a politician who grows from being a power-hungry cynic into a more idealistic leader with a mission.
The movie cuts back and forth between the arrival of Vice President Johnson (played by Harrelson, beneath many prosthetics), his wife Lady Bird (Leigh), John F. Kennedy (Donovan), and Jackie Kennedy (Kim Allen) in Dallas on November 22, 1963, where Kennedy would soon be shot and killed while traveling in a motorcade. Johnson isn’t thrilled to be there, and in a series of flashbacks we see him in the years prior: as a foul-mouthed pragmatic Senate majority leader cracking dirty jokes and arguing with the idealistic Sen. Yarborough (Pullman), a candidate for president, and then as vice president under Kennedy, trying to cut deals with the racist Sen. Russell (Jenkins) and quarreling with Bobby Kennedy (Stahl-David).
Johnson is foul-mouthed and insecure while knowing full well that he’s powerful, one of the few people in Congress who can get things done — a “workhorse” to Kennedy’s “show horse,” as he puts it to his aides. Much of his time as vice president is spent trying to position himself to run in 1968 by being the bridge between the Southern Caucus in the Senate, which is staunchly against integration, and the progressive Kennedys, who are determined to push forward the Civil Rights Act.
The film mostly stays in Washington, focusing on the machinations behind the scenes that get men elected and bills on the Senate floor. And while for much of the film Johnson comes across as a hard-bitten career politician whose main interest is in figuring out how to stay as close to power as possible — early on, he tells aides that it’s in his best interest for the civil rights debate to “go on forever” — he eventually seems to grow a conscience, finally giving up playing both sides to call out an old pal as a racist to his face.
LBJ never finds its legs as a film
All of that is fine, even if it feels a little too neat to be the whole story (and the various controversies that dog LBJ’s legacy ensure that it will be a long time before America settles on one narrative about him). LBJ’s problems are mostly in the filmmaking: The flashback structure doesn’t work at all — it feels contrived and cuts the tension of the Kennedy assassination — and in some scenes where Johnson is still acting from a position of cynical dealmaking, the score swells heroically, which feels completely off. The musical score indicates that the film wants to work in the West Wing mode, as a story about flawed people figuring out how to do good, but too often it feels excessive, like the movie is telling us how to feel.
But in the end, the biggest problem is in the characterization. After a while you can kind of forget it’s Harrelson under all the makeup and prosthetics, partly because it’s an accent that we’ve heard him do before. But the characters in this movie already have larger-than-life public images: The Kennedy brothers, with their distinctive Boston accents and handsome looks, contrast sharply with Johnson’s old-boy Texas drone, but they feel contrived in practice, as does Lady Bird’s look.
It’s as if the film is trying to replicate the historical figures exactly, which is almost always the wrong approach when it comes to historical movies, resulting in performances that are trying to be mirror images of real people, rather than performances that capture the characters. Sometimes it can work — as with Gary Oldman’s upcoming turn in Darkest Hour as Winston Churchill, or Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy — but it’s usually the wrong approach if you want to inspire truly great performances and let your audiences experience the characters in a new way.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was perhaps the most unlikely candidate to portray Truman Capote in the 2005 film Capote, but he was a revelation because he imagined the character anew; Michael Fassbender did something similar in Steve Jobs. Letting actors sink into the character rather than doing imitations is, in the end, a better homage to the real person, and a less distracting one too.
LBJ has the makings of a great film, beneath the prosthetics and the unwieldy filmmaking. But it can’t quite summon the narrative tension to tell a great story, nor does the story it does tell help unravel the contradictions of Johnson’s legacy. The 36th president will have to wait for his big-screen biography a little longer.
LBJ opens in theaters on November 2.