Say what you will about Lyndon Baines Johnson. Yes, he was ornery. Yes, he was a bullish old cuss. And yes, he was probably one of the most foul-mouthed and crude presidents in our nationís hist... well, er... never mind. Regardless, peel back that unflinching facade, look past the riverboat gambler buffoonery, and youíll find one of the most accomplished presidents in our countryís history. And he did it by being an astute politician willing to wheel and deal and give and take towards a workable solution. Something weíve not seen in modern politics in quite some time, and a fact highlighted in Rob Reinerís new biopic about the 36th president called LBJ.
The film isnít so much an LBJ biopic as it is an insular look at two particular slices of time during the manís political tenure. Granted, very important slices of time. The first highlights Johnsonís (Woody Harrelson) 1960 campaign run against John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) for the Democratic partyís nomination. The second focuses on the periods of time on both sides of the Kennedy assassination as LBJ became Kennedyís running mate and eventually moved into the white house to carry on with his predecessorís legacy, which included the civil rights movement. As the film plays out, we jump back and forth between the two timelines. Thereís no apparent reason for the fractured timeline, so it only serves as an unnecessary distraction within an already overly-cluttered film.
Surprisingly missing from LBJ is any exploration of the assassination and how it affected the country, the Kennedy family, or even the world. Though always fascinating to see the complex machinations of a governmental power handover following such a tragedy, Reiner is more interested in exploring Johnson as a control-loving bureaucrat who willingly takes on the powerless role of Vice President before eventually being thrust into the presidency with a certain amount of regret and anguish. Also missing is anything more than a few words about the Vietnam war which was as pivotal a moment in Johnsonís presidency as any.
Johnson was undoubtedly a live-wire of a personality and Harrelson chews the scenery quicker than they can throw it at him as he struggles to capture the Texas rancherís welcoming back-porch wit and foolhardy demeanor without sending it over into impersonation. But thatís an impossibly futile task from beneath three inches of latex and silicone that keep us mesmerized at how little his padded jowls, billowing cheeks, and flagging wattle move when he speaks. Good make-up should enhance and never hinder, but the artists were tasked with a miracle here, and sadly, itís a total distraction we canít keep our eyes off of. Someone much older, and less like Woody Harrelson might have been the smarter choice.
Harrelson captures Johnsonís bluster and braggadocio best in LBJ when heís going on and on to his tailor about needing more room in the crotch of his britches due to the size of his manhood, or when heís conducting governmental business from atop the commode. And his backroom negotiations with good-old-boy Democratic Senator and former Georgia governor Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) are truly captivating to watch as a didactic lesson into old-school politics. But the dialogue, as provided by screenwriter Joey Hartstone, is rarely ever dynamic enough to rise to the challenge and never gives Harrelson the hammer to forge the multi-layered, dynamic character such a bold personality deserves.
One of the filmís bright spots is Michael Stahl-David whose Bobby Kennedy character actually gets more screen time than his brother. The strained nature of his relationship with Johnson is truly quite fascinating and brings to the forefront an under-explored poignancy about the precarious balance between Kennedyís need for a running mate who can get the Southern vote, and Johnsonís wily desire for power. The dynamic for something much bigger is there, but sadly, Reiner pulls back on the reins.
LBJís overarching theme is certainly a valiant one that couldnít be any more timely than it is right now. Johnson was his own man and certainly did things his own way. Yet he never stopped working the room and found ways to pass some of the biggest legislation in our countryís history during one of our most divisive periods. Thereís something for each of us to remember and learn from that. The problem is that in LBJ, itís just not that interesting. If only the movie were as big, bold, and bombastic as the man himself.
(Released by Electric Entertainment and rated ďRĒ for language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.