Rob Reiner’s film LBJ, with Woody Harrelson in the title role, was unveiled at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival, but will be in theaters November 3. Those dates provide viewers a twist of the kaleidoscope, from pre-election to the end of Donald Trump’s first year in office. Any political movie is bound to provoke comparisons, but the ones between Johnson, the master deal-maker of his turbulent time, and Trump, the “artist” of the deal in his time, should prove rich indeed.
Reiner (The American President, When Harry Met Sally), and freshman screenwriter Joey Hartstone have taken a leaf from Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln playbook, focusing on Johnson’s skills in shepherding New Deal-style legislation through the Scylla of the Senate and the Charybdis of the House of Representatives. That places the focus of the film on his final days as Senate leader, and then, after uncharacteristically dithering too long in deciding to make his own run for the White House, accepting John F. Kennedy’s offer of the VP spot. When LBJ is thrust violently into the Presidency on November 22, 1963, he quickly completes his transformation from segregationist Southern Democrat to champion of civil rights, seizing the moment and the memory to push through the legislation JFK wanted as his own legacy. Under LBJ, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act became law and Medicare and Medicaid continued what FDR had begun. The Supreme Court welcomed the first African-American justice, and a War on Poverty was declared.
The matter of a war in Southeast Asia, which all but obscured LBJ’s successes, is barely touched upon in LBJ, which will no doubt infuriate the generations who came of age in its bloody, nation-shattering shadow. And yet it’s impossible not to revisit Johnson’s accomplishments in light of today’s resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, whose self-proclaimed deal-making prowess has thus far proven nil.
After a screening of the film this week, Reiner and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell were animatedly discussing Reiner’s earlier appearance (with Harrelson) on the cable channel’s Morning Joe program, where Reiner had been somewhat sucker-punched with a question about Harvey Weinstein (“Here’s the thing,” Reiner said right off the bat. “Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting, let’s just say that.”) An awkward segue that brought Fox News, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Trump into the circle of disgust had been met with some derision by Joe and Mika, O’Donnell and Reiner agreed. They also concurred that the Russian incursion into U.S. politics will prove deeper and more malevolent than we yet know, and that its purpose is not the election of specific candidates but more generally, political destabilization to undermine the Republic.
A few minutes later, the crowd reconvened in a private dining room at “21” for a spread underwritten by the film’s North American distributor, Electric Entertainment. Steve Schmidt – Republican Trump demurrer and regular on O’Donnell’s program The Last Word – moderated a panel discussion of the film with Reiner and Harrelson (who got a well-deserved hero’s welcome), along with writer Hartstone and Michael Stahl-David, who plays Johnson’s bête noir, Bobby Kennedy.
The media and film-savvy audience included Connie Chung and Maurie Povich, Goodfellas and Casino scripter Nicholas Pileggi, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, documentary playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith, playwright Lyle Kessler and Panama-born musician and political activist Rubén Blades, along with two of the film’s producers, Mary Solomon and Timothy White.
Asked about shining such a favorable light on Johnson, Reiner – who not only got his start playing Archie Bunker’s long-haired anti-war son-in-law Mike “Meathead” Stivic on All In The Family, but has a formidable asset of Hollywood liberalism – was ready.
“I was younger then, ” he said, explaining that his feelings about the War in Vietnam have not changed, but his view of Johnson has. The already insecure 6’4″ pol was made to feel crude, small and emasculated by the polished and handsome Kennedy brothers. LBJ is a sentiment-heavy movie. Whether critics with long memories – or audiences with none – will be buying it, we’ll find out in a few weeks.