- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
Lyndon Baines Johnson is easily the 20th century’s most Shakespearean president, a title that for some reason a few folks have ascribed to Nixon. This always struck me as very slightly off — Tricky Dick’s fear and thuggishness kept him light years from his better angels.
Johnson, on the other hand — well, it’s hard not to image Bill S. looking upon Johnson’s five-plus years as leader of the free world with no small amount of writer’s envy. Having lusted after power in general and the Oval Office in particular since about World War II, Johnson suddenly got the job in the worst way possible on Nov. 22, 1963.
Openly despised by his sainted predecessor’s attorney general brother, mistrusted by (and possibly intimidated by) the leftover Kennedy Cabinet, Johnson nonetheless won re-election with a jaw-dropping 61 percent of the popular vote. Johnson racked up a stunning record on civil rights, attempted to implement his potentially game-changing Great Society programs and, oh, right, wrecked his presidency utterly on the shores of Vietnam.
Politically brilliant, vulgar, beloved, hated, cunning, thoughtful, bullying and the most nation-altering big government liberal since FDR — how there isn’t a miniseries about the guy once a year is beyond me. (The HBO movie “All The Way,” starring Bryan Cranston in better makeup as LBJ, aired in 2016.)
Rob Reiner gets a little of this in “LBJ,” his extremely civilized, 90-minute look at, no kidding, just about two weeks in the Johnson presidency (there’s more covered in flashbacks).
Let’s get this out of the way first: As strong as he is with the accent and as hard as he is trying to act through some serious latex applications, Woody Harrelson is about 5 inches too short to play Johnson. I know it’s a silly comment given how traditionally tiny Hollywood dudes are, but Johnson was 6-feet-2 and used every inch to cajole, reassure and intimidate.
Just Google the famous photo of him towering over Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas for proof — he looks capable of swallowing Fortas whole, and this was someone he LIKED. Which is to say, Harrelson does a lovely job looking frazzled, annoyed and sometimes scared, but he’s never once intimidating, a vital element of Johnson’s whole deal.
Directing from Joey Hartstone’s script, Reiner keeps things straightforward, almost movie-of-the-week-ish. The opening 10 minutes or so are movie’s strongest, with then-Senate Majority Leader Johnson in his favorite role as perhaps the all-time greatest congressional shot-caller — he castigates employees for their imprecision on a vote count, he explains to his tailor how his suits should be cut (can’t print his instructions here, but it’s a classic, uh, Johnson-ism) and verbally spanks fellow Sen. Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman, in full smug), aka the god of Texas Progressives, with an annoyed “the only thing more annoying than a liberal is a liberal from Texas.” So far, so on point.
Johnson tells Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David, looking hacked off the entire time) that he doesn’t want to be president. Then he tries and fails. Genuinely surprised that John Kennedy — whose charisma he radically underestimates — didn’t even need a second ballot to secure the nomination, he agrees to move from most powerful man in Congress to being Kennedy’s spare tire, convinced that “power is where power goes.”
Which would have been true except for the fact that the Kennedy administration refused to use Johnson’s superhuman powers of persuasion at all. Again and again, from JFK (a toothy Jeffrey Donovan doing the accent as well as possible) to Bobby (who, at least here but probably elsewhere, truly hated Johnson) to the aides, Johnson is shunted aside.
Add to this his complicated and ultimately fractured relationship with notorious (and notoriously powerful) racist Sen. Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins, perfect as always) and the Shakespearean elements come into view.
This era, the JFK presidency itself, shares screen time with the period from Nov. 22, 1963, to Johnson’s address to Congress five days later in which he pledges that Kennedy’s work will continue, especially the moral imperative that was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The assassination itself is treated with the grim melodrama that can only (one hopes) come from a liberal baby boomer filmmaker, though this is the sort of place where it becomes impossible to tell how Reiner feels about his subject (in fairness, he may not know). The scene wherein Johnson gathers people to pray in the Dallas hospital feels too cynical by half, especially after a kind of cheap shot of Johnson’s — confused? scared? conniving? — face as he lay on the floor of his limo during the shooting itself.
There are moments: Johnson asking Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh, of whom we could have used more) “why don’t they like me?” seems both sweet and naive given Johnson’s political will-to-power. The movie does a perfect job, however briefly, of illustrating that Lady Bird was probably the only human alive whom LBJ trusted completely; their few scenes together are excellent.
It’s solid political drama, but only solid. Nobody will lose any points with me for making a movie under two hours in this day and age, but “LBJ” could use a little more room. This movie takes place essentially pre-Vietnam, or at least pre-LBJ’s decision-making relationship with it — the country, and the war that will ultimately undo the main character, is mentioned maybe twice, even as it looms over what we see. No wonder there are three title cards of postscript explaining the next few years of country-shattering drama: “LBJ” is LBJ just as he was becoming LBJ.