Movie Review: LBJ.
Director Rob Reiner’s excellent biopic is limited in scope but powerful in its presentation.
Last week’s trailer round up lit a fire under me for LBJ. As I said there, I anticipated a stately and effective film that I could wait to see until it made it to rental, but was impressed enough by the performances and vision of the piece to check it out. I’m glad I did. While many will linger on the powerful performance of Woody Harrelson as LBJ, I was just as moved by the supporting cast and the careful eye for detail that Reiner brought to the project. While I wish the film had covered more of Johnson’s contentious presidency, LBJ is a expertly crafted and thought provoking look at a pivotal moment in American politics.
Despite being the most powerful man in the Senate and the presumptive front runner, personal doubts kept Lyndon Johnson from committing to the 1960 presidential race until the last moment. By then, a handsome upstart named John Fitzgerald Kennedy had taken the reigns of the democratic party. Needing a southerner on his ticket, and mistrustful of Johnson’s political ambitions, JFK made LBJ his running mate, turning the tough law maker into a toothless Vice President. When tragedy struck in 1963, Lyndon became the man to ensure that JFK’s vision for Civil Rights reform would come to pass.
All The King’s Men.
The acting in this film is damn fine. Most reviews will probably dwell on Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. That’s for good reason; Harrelson inhabits his character so profoundly that he feels born to the role. It would be a gross oversight if he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work. What impressed me was how well the rest of the cast acquits themselves.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is nearly unrecognizable as Lady Bird Johnson, and she gives Harrelson’s LBJ an emotional center. Richard Jenkins manages to play Senator Russell with weight a dignity, despite being the obvious heel of the picture. For my money, I found Michael Stahl-David’s turn as Bobby Kennedy to be powerful, again worthy of a nomination. The only weak link is Jeffrey Donovan’s JFK, who feels a tad too much like an impersonation of the man. I like Donovan a ton for his TV work, but he’s a tad out of his depth here.
I love the way Reiner composes his shots. The events of the infamous day in Dallas are interwoven into the narrative, using appropriate cues to cut away to an important event in LBJ’s journey from Senator to failed candidate, all the way to the Presidency. The film moves briskly, getting the maximum amount of value from each segment.
What really stood out was the terrific use of light and shadow. Much of the film relies on natural lighting. Offices are illuminated by only what sunlight can find its way in, casting pools of light and darkness which characters move into and out of to great effect. Against this somber character lighting, we get wide shots of the capital. This juxtaposition gives a sense of weight and scale to the proceedings. It’s all deftly carried off, and I found myself enamored of the skill Reiner brought to the task.
My only problem with LBJ is that the film is just a touch too narrow. The arc of the narrative is laser-focussed on the passage of Kennedy’s Civil Right’s Act, so much so that the early work to introduce us to Johnson and other players in the drama feels like mere foreshadowing for how he bull-wrangles the bill through Congress. Once he delivers his address, the film wraps itself up in short order. There’s precious little time spent lingering on the events. While I can appreciate the directorial acumen, much gets left by the wayside with such shrift.
If you were wondering how the this moment in American politics fits into the bigger scheme of events, such as Vietnam, the broader civil rights struggle, or the looming realignment of the South with the opposition party, you won’t get any of that here. At best they’re given lip service. At worst, they’re waved away. The only spoken reference to Vietnam is a staffer asking LBJ his thinking on the war, and his brusk reply “my thinking on Vietnam is that I don’t want to think about Vietnam.” Neither does the film as a whole.
Work Horse, Show Horse.
LBJ is a very good movie that just misses being a great movie. As excellent as Harrelson is as Johnson makes me wish the film had doubled down and followed him for the remainder of his tumultuous presidency. While the film does go to the effort of showing Lydon’s warts and personal foibles, the issue with which LBJ is forever linked is glaringly absent. As such, this drama feels like a rehabilitation of Johnson’s legacy, showing the moments when he stood tall and turning away before coming to unpleasantness.
As much as I regret this omission, I really enjoyed LBJ. It’s superbly shot and packed with tremendous performances. You really get a sense of the man. It just feels incomplete. As silly as it sounds on first blush, I would like to see an LBJ 2. I hope Harrelson returns to this role to wrestle with and do justice to the less unambiguous aspects of Johnson’s presidency.