A movie that struggles, like the President, to dig deeper, or just simply do enough to try and be liked.
Director: Rob Reiner/2017
Woody Harrelson seems to be choosing films that are not only are unique and diverse, but that are bound to have him nominated for an Oscar. Earlier this year, he appeared in The Glass Castle and War for the Planet of the Apes, and this fall he has Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Shock and Awe, and this film, LBJ, a portrait of the former President. Both Shock and Awe and LBJ are directed by Rob Reiner, and so, at least with LBJ, you can expect a pretty safe story that is meant for mass appeal. LBJ as a real-life person was complicated enough, so Reiner chooses to play it rather safe and let these real-life complications of character build its own suspense.
Woody, who was very good in The Glass Castle, exudes charm, and some hefty Texas-sized charisma, as Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). As a bull-in-a-china-shop, Democratic Senator Johnson ran against John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) for the chance to be awarded the party’s nomination for President in 1960. This bothered Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) especially, who was surprised when his brother chose Johnson to be his Vice-Presidential running mate. Reiner’s LBJ chronicles the time between this period and the passage of the Civil Rights Bills of 1964 and 1965.
This complicated character is shown in the film to be struggling with pleasing all of the southern voters he appealed to, and whom Kennedy needed to win the election, and trying to compete with the progressive political convictions of the Kennedy’s on race relations, among other issues, that would be staunchly opposed by the southern Democrats he was supposed to help with. Most notable was Georgia’s Sen. Russell (Richard Jenkins), who liked Johnson, until they clashed on the Civil Rights Bills of 1964 and 1965.
Harrelson plays LBJ as a man who longs to be both feared and loved. Much like the fictional Office Manager Michael Scott (Steve Carrell), in NBC’s show The Office, who says he too wants to be both feared and loved as a boss and settles for a compromise stating, “I want them to be afraid of how much they love me”, Johnson seems to go back and forth between his own political aspirations to be President and take on the hard work that comes with that office, and doing something endearing for the country so that he will be liked as well. Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but Johnson sees them as opposite destinations, never knowing why people didn’t embrace him the way they do Kennedy.
Once Kennedy is assassinated in 1963 and Johnson takes the Oval Office, LBJ seems to suggest that, the now recently sworn-in, President Johnson gained a clarity that said that doing the right thing is a higher ideal than pandering to your base and your past political position. The film postulates that this resulted in him pushing for the Civil Rights Act out of principle, rather than perhaps the darker, cynical view that even if he agreed it should happen, it probably did happen because it was an issue JFK was loved for, and if he wanted to be loved, he’d be the one who would see it come to pass. By using the angle to further the legacy of JFK, it would help with its passage. While the film alludes to this complicated and layered approach to Johnson, it sweeps some of the depth and complexities that existed away with it.
Some of this lack of depth might be more of an attempt by Reiner, a politically active individual, to once again put out his politically idealized hopes on the screen, especially in a time that creates a striking contrast with the current resident of The White House. It doesn’t seek to create a conclusion as emotionally manipulating as Reiner’s previous political film The American President (1995), which was a portrayal of a fictionalized administration. It is clear, however, that Reiner’s political heart is being worn on his sleeve, as he casts out this grand ideal he believes we should aspire to, while trying to demonstrate the political slog that good men and women have to drag legislation through in order to make it a reality through a bill signed into law. It is too bad that he tries to show this superficially without diving deeper into the complexities of the very people and issues he is supposed to be examining in the story..
One film that is reminiscent of this process that Reiner is trying to show is Spielberg’s Lincoln, which shows the President pushing for the ratification of the 13th amendment. LBJ doesn’t revolve around the passage of the Civil Rights Act as a way to examine the life of Johnson the way Lincoln focuses on the passage of the 13th Amendment to give us a portrait of President Lincoln. Rather, it seeks to encapsulate Johnson within the time period of 1960-1965 to see his evolution from a powerful Senator, who is driven to seek the most powerful position in the land which is the presidency, to becoming a man who realizes the historic time he finds himself in, following Kennedy’s assassination, and how he might be able to accomplish something historic, if he is brave enough to stand against those in Congress that he has traditionally stood with.
Harrelson is good, and embodies the spirit of the man, with enough nuances to complicate him a little bit. We see some more honest, raw discussions between Johnson and his wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that the film could have used a bit more of, than when Johnson is out blustering with his over-the-top bravado in front of aides, or fellow Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman) who initially doesn’t see Johnson as an ally for his liberal hopes of the passage of a Civil Rights Bills.
The film has a R-rating as it is faithful to Johnson’s reportedly liberal use of profanity, but it still tries to gloss things over a bit too much in terms of its narrative like a PG-13 film, instead of using the R-rating to dive deeper into the political friction within the Democratic party at the time such as that which existed due to the resistance of the southern Democrats to embrace a Civil Rights Act that they saw threatening their “way of life”. It also doesn’t fully explore the conflict between the Kennedy brothers and Johnson, especially following the death of President John F. Kennedy, at least not in the way it could have.
The atrocities suffered by the brave participants of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s are given some screen time to serve as a contextual marker, but we don’t really see a more realistic look at this, other than some historic news clips, and we don’t get to witness the full effect these ongoing news clips had on Johnson. We see President Johnson tell Sen. Russell that the Civil Rights Act was personal to Johnson because his personal cook, who was black, should be able to drive to Texas with the President’s dog and not worry about being pulled over, or finding a place to eat. He says that he had asked her to do this, but she refused for those reasons. While it is sentimentally touching (though a bit self-serving and odd that the reason he cares about Civil Rights is because it kept him from getting his cook to do what he wanted), it also doesn’t address the more widespread atrocities being faced by so many across the south, where Johnson has his base of support, and that the film alluded to with the news clips. Had this been the focus, LBJ could have better demonstrated the immense pressure Johnson was facing for taking a stand on this legislation, not to mention the pressure people like Dr. Martin Luther King were putting on Johnson for passage of this Civil Rights Act (which was shown in the film Selma).
Overall, LBJ is a competent film with some strong performances that suffers from the exact same predicament Joey Hartstone’s script puts President Johnson in, where he worries that people will fear him and consequently not like him.. This film tries to hold firm and walk the line of being a deep-dive into the conscience and soul of a complicated man who faced an historic moment that put him at odds with everything he had built in his political career for the greater good, and simultaneously appeal to the broadest commercial appeal it can to bring in a larger audience. Like President Johnson, the film does some great things. But also, like Johnson who chose not to run again for a new term in 1968, this film should not expect to do anything beyond its term, or in this case initial running time. You have to inspire people to love you and champion the causes you pursue by sticking to your convictions even in the face of adversity. You cannot make people love you by doing something you think they want, with no motive beyond that of being liked, at its core. This is true whether you are President, or a film about one. LBJ, the film, leans a little too much towards the latter.