Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Michael Stahl-David, Jeffrey Donovan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Jenkins, C. Thomas Howell, Michael Mosley, Bill Pullman,
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 11/3/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 2, 2017
What's the point of this supposed biography of Lyndon Johnson? Most of the movie covers his time as Vice President to John F. Kennedy, during which he's repeatedly and constantly stymied by the administration from doing the work he wants to do—whatever that might be. By the time he assumes the presidency, the movie is practically finished. The climactic moments of LBJ see the 36th President taking on Kennedy's agenda as his own. The rest of the story of his time in office is relegated to some text before the credits.
What we learn about Johnson from the movie is that he's a man who wants to be loved and to possess power. We learn the former detail because his wife states it outright, after overhearing a conversation about the then-Senator's indecisiveness in running for President in 1960, and the latter detail from Johnson himself, as he makes big plans for the kind of Vice President he wants to be. The idea, one supposes, is to see Johnson humble himself in the aftershock of Kennedy's assassination. He has to give up the people who have supported him—fellow Southern Democrats—in order to move forward with Kennedy's civil rights agenda, and he has give up his own vision for the country—again, whatever that might be—in order to honor the legacy of his slain predecessor.
Johnson, played by Woody Harrelson (under layers of heavy, distracting makeup—mostly for the effect of eerie, unmoving jowls—that give him the distinct appearance of a wax sculpture), is perhaps the least interesting character in this movie. We don't know what he actually wants, except to be loved and to possess power, and we never actually see him as an active presence in his own political life. His accomplishments and everything that made him a controversial figure are saved for that text at the end. Joey Hartstone's screenplay essentially exists as a story that ends about midway through the second act.
Instead, we get the anecdotes about Johnson and yet another depiction of Kennedy (played by Jeffrey Donovan) as an idealist and a martyr. The movie shows us Kennedy's world. In that world, which is mostly occupied by the presence of Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), Johnson is only a bit player, whose presence is only semi-welcome by the administration and, seemingly, within the movie itself.
There's the bit in which Johnson calls his tailor, requesting that his next pair of pants has a little more room in the inseam to accommodate his "well-endowed" stature. There's his unconfirmed statement that playing the civil rights battle correctly in the political arena will have black voters voting for Democrats for the next two centuries (Given that statement's implications and questionable origin, it's a strange thing for a movie trying to lionize Johnson as the primary force driving the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include). There's a scene of him wheeling and dealing while sitting on the toilet.
These are the sorts of colorful details that could help to add personality and humanity to Johnson. Since there's no understanding of the man's goals and drive, those colorful details become the extent of the character here.
The structure is one of flashbacks to Johnson before becoming and during his tenure as Vice President, with Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas on November 22, 1963 as the story's return point. Most of Johnson's time is spent being defeated, being obfuscated by heading a thankless committee on employment equality, and debating the stubborn racism of Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), a Southern Democrat who thinks Johnson is, at heart, an ally in his cause of "preserving" the "heritage" of the country. Johnson appears to be an opportunist, playing both sides of the issue to keep his favor with advocates for each one.
That's the appearance, and whichever side of the issue the soon-to-be President truly adheres to is more or less irrelevant. We know how it turns out. The strange thing is that the movie doesn't seem particularly interested in either motives or process. How Johnson comes to his decision seems a matter of circumstance, not principles. As for how the agenda moves forward, the movie only cares that Johnson decides it should. In the movie's thinking, the story is finished after that.
This might be a story of how political pragmatism means nothing in the face of an issue as necessary as civil rights, but it ends too soon for that point to mean anything. LBJ certainly isn't an examination of Johnson's effect on the political landscape of the United States, since, again, it ends too soon for that, and it offers little, if any, insight into the man himself. It must be iterated: What is the point?
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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