If several actors can tackle the legacy of Winston Churchill and be awarded for it, then why not Lyndon Baines Johnson? In recent times we have seen British actor Tom Wilkinson take him on somewhat controversially in Selma, as well as Bryan Cranston in his Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated turn in All the Way; both were excellent in the role, especially Cranston. Now we can add — of all people — Woody Harrelson to the club in LBJ, director Rob Reiner’s stirring biopic.
Harrelson, from a different part of Texas than Johnson, just nails this role, even if the makeup job is a bit jarring at first. You get used to it and completely succumb to Harrelson’s talents in transforming into the 36th president. Unlike the other films, this compact, 98-minute movie covers more of the waterfront in showing us just what made Johnson such a complex figure: a Southern politician who would become the person responsible for pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as a president brought down by the Vietnam War that engulfed the later years of his time in office. As I say in my video review above, Reiner’s film, from a screenplay by Joey Hartstone, is on the surface a fairly straightforward-looking biopic, but in its gut is a fine character study of a talented Senate Majority Leader who made a 1960 presidential run that was overshadowed by his younger Democratic colleague John F. Kennedy and then surprisingly became his running mate, then vice president after he was elected and finally president after JFK was assassinated in Johnson’s home state in 1963.
The film focuses on these events as well as his signature achievement in getting the Civil Rights Act through Congress despite opposition from the very region he once represented. As the movie demonstrates, it probably only was Johnson, with his unique Southern persuasion and keen awareness of navigating Congress, who could have brought to fruition one of Kennedy’s key goals. Through Harrelson’s often wry, funny and cantankerous three-dimensional portrayal, we see how LBJ could play both sides and become a comfortable advocate for the landmark legislation. That’s just one part of what this ambitious movie covers. There are touching and nice scenes with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson (a superb Jennifer Jason Leigh). His difficult relationship with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (played well by Michael Stahl David) is dealt with, as are his interactions with JFK (Jeffrey Donovan, convincing enough in the iconic role). Best of all are scenes between LBJ and his good friend, Georgia Sen. Richard Russell Jr (beautifully played by Richard Jenkins). Russell was a man not afraid to use the N-word in regular conversation, which is kind of jarring as seen through the prism of today, but this film doesn’t sacrifice authenticity for political correctness.
It’s interesting that political junkie and anti-Vietnam War advocate Reiner wanted to take on the film at all. Coming from someone who could criticize LBJ in many ways, but also find a way in retrospect to admire what he accomplished, makes this effort all the more impressive. The passing decades, including an exhaustive multi-volume biography, have been fairly kind to Johnson in a way you can’t imagine will ever happen to Donald Trump. It’s also timely, considering the racial strife in this country more than 50 years after LBJ’s landmark legislative achievement. The film also is pertinent as it is being released in a week that has seen most of the remaining closed files of the JFK assassination released to the public.
All of this era is very front of mind again, and LBJ — even though it was first unveiled over a year ago at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival — is perfectly situated for release in the month that will mark the 54th anniversary of Johnson’s ascent to the presidency after unimaginable tragedy. Sadly, major studios aren’t interested in this kind of film anymore, but Reiner’s Castle Rock Entertainment fortunately was able to find distribution through indie Electric Entertainment, which will release it Friday. Producers are Reiner, Matthew George, Liz Glotzer, Tim White, Trevor White and Michael R. Williams.
Do you plan to see LBJ? Let us know what you think.