Review: LBJ (2016)

LBJ (2016)

Directed by: Rob Reiner | 98 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Woody Harrelson, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey Donovan, Bill Pullman, John Burke, C. Thomas Howell, John Ellison Conlee, Michael Mosley, Tim Ransom, Brent Bailey, Brian Stepanek, Darrel Guilbeau, Oliver Edwin, Michael Francis Horn, Kim Allen, Rich Sommer, Wallace Langham, Kate Butler

Like an unstoppable whirlwind, Woody Harrelson as Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) thunders through this interesting but not quite successful character study. Harrelson throws his heart and soul into the “larger than life” politician and certainly does not shy away from the raw edges of his personality, but cannot prevent the film from falling short in depth. It also doesn’t help that Harrelson is nearly unrecognizable through layers of prosthetic adjustments and makeup. He hardly looks like himself anymore, but unfortunately not like Johnson either. The film was already made in 2016, but was shelved for a while before it went into circulation. As in many biographical films in recent years, the focus is on a small part of the life of the portrayed: here on the years between 1959 and 1963, when Johnson goes through major upheavals in his political life.

Harrelson is convincing as the driven and agile Johnson, who was the most powerful Democrat in Washington DC in the late 1950s. As the Senate Majority Leader, he had control over the entire US legislative process. It is aptly depicted with telephone name calling and his subtle and less subtle manipulation of his fellow Senators. He trades his position of power for one with only the illusion of power: the vice presidency under the young, charismatic John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan). Pitiful scenes show Johnson’s decline, marginalized by the younger, arrogant elite around the president, led by his brother Robert (Michael Stahl-David). Humiliated and laughed at like a Texas fossil, Johnson fears he will be dumped as Kennedy’s vice president in the 1964 election. But then everything changes: JFK is shot dead and Johnson has a hard time showing his leadership to the nation and determining whether he wants to continue Kennedy’s progressive policies, which were highly controversial in the US South in particular. He is distrusted by the Democrat left, who are openly mutiny against him, and viewed with suspicion by conservative Southerners, who think he belongs to their camp and become increasingly concerned about Johnson’s plans.

‘LBJ’ skilfully jumps back and forth in time to highlight the various facets of his career, taking as a benchmark the events of November 22, 1963, when Kennedy is shot dead in Johnson’s home state. The flashbacks are told in a logical pattern so that the viewer gets a well-developed look at the turbulence in Johnson’s career and how his motivations are linked to the exercise of power.

Director Rob Reiner is especially interested in how the President of the United States can use his power for a noble purpose, but remains on the surface. “Power reveals,” historian Robert A. Caro repeatedly wrote in his multi-volume biography of LBJ. Caro was referring to Lord Acton’s well-known saying: “power corrupts”, but Caro argued that power also shows what kind of person is hidden behind that power and how this person handles power. Unfortunately, Reiner does not fully elaborate on the latter. The makers focus on the transfer of power and part of the fight to get Kennedy’s Congress-smothered civil rights bill passed and passed. A struggle in which Johnson went head-to-head against his own roots and his close ties to the Confederate Senators. However, that was also the focus of the simultaneously shot, but better ‘All the Way’ (2016) with Bryan Cranston as Johnson (and proof that you don’t have to overdo makeup to portray the president beautifully).

Harrelson gets good counterplay from Jennifer Jason Leigh as wife Lady Bird, Bill Pullman as progressive Democratic Senator Ralph Yarborough and especially Richard Jenkins as Senator Richard Russell. It is always difficult to play such iconic figures as the Kennedy brothers, but Jeffrey Donovan plays an above-average JFK, who especially manages to master the accent that was difficult for many previous actors. He has previously been able to practice the nasal-Boston-Kennedy sounds with his role as Robert “Bobby” Kennedy in the aforementioned ‘J. Edgar’. The role of the younger brother of the President, who is also Minister of Justice, is here taken over by Michael Stahl-David. He also shows a very acceptable Bobby – possibly the best since Steven Culp in ‘Thirteen Days’ and certainly a lot better than the miscast Peter Sarsgaard in ‘Jackie’. And although Bobby doesn’t always come off as sympathetic compared to Johnson, their monumental clashes are well portrayed. The film’s strongest point is the scenes between Jenkins and Harrelson: the racist Georgia senator, who continued the Civil War struggle through Congress to favor white residents, versus his old friend and colleague, who is moving out of his new home. position as president tries to pry a stone from the masonry wall of hatred.

Harrelson does a wonderful job of conveying some emotion with his latex-wrapped face, but it’s honestly distracting too often, so crucial scenes don’t have their full impact. It is sometimes reminiscent of the equally unsuccessful latex layers that Leonardo DiCaprio was put on for his role in ‘J. Edgar’ (about Johnson’s contemporary FBI Director Hoover).

While most films about the JFK assassination naturally focus on the massacre in the presidential limousine, here we see it from the perspective of Johnson, who was driving one of the support cars in the parade through Dallas. It offers a fresh look at a reconstruction that has previously appeared in films such as ‘JFK’ (1991) and ‘Jackie’ (2016) and miniseries such as ‘Kennedy’ (1983) and ‘The Kennedys’ (2011). Incidentally, Harrelson also has a personal connection with the assassination attempt on Kennedy: father Charles Harrelson was an assassin who is mentioned in some conspiracy theories as one of the gunmen. ‘LBJ’ boasts strong acting and a number of convincing moments, but loses some air in the last part due to an oversimplified portrait of the 36th president. The ultimate Johnson biography of his presidency, including Vietnam and the failure of his social program ‘The Great Society’ has yet to be made.

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