Produced by Matthew George, Tim White,
Trevor White, Rob Reiner, Liz Glotzer
Written by Joey Hartstone
Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Woody Harrelson, Michael Stahl-David,
Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, Jeffrey Donovan,
C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
It’s difficult to make well-worn territory seem novel or new without rewriting history.
It seems like there can only be so many takes on a tale. But possibly, more difficult, is telling a little known story with the backdrop of said commonly known epic.
Without a stellar grabbing element, the fledgling story is little more than a quirky side note to history.
This is the case of Rob Reiner’s latest, LBJ.
Though the time between President Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech on the Senate floor was just a few weeks, the film does not seem to know where it wants to focus even for such a brief period.
It never feels like a biopic as much as it does a black box theater play, staged and overwrought even in it’s most intimate moments.
LBJ covers the time after the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), a tumultuous period that saw alliances tested and the direction of the nation in jeopardy. Thrust into a position that he wanted but not in the way he would have ever dreamed, Lyndon B. Johnson (Woody Harrelson) finds himself torn between his personal vision for the nation and the unfinished legacy of the leader originally elected by the American people.
The film starts out from behind due to the overshadowing presence of JFK’s rapid rise to popularity and presidency. No other modern president has been covered quite as much in popular culture, and graced as many cinema screens.
Besides Jeffrey Donovan’s distracting and wandering Boston accent, we are constantly pulled out of LBJ’s story as the scenes flash between his earliest days as a pol before accepting the vice presidency, and the motorcade ride and aftermath. It was jarring as one vein was full of a familiar tale and the other was attempting to make us feel for this previous background character as much as we have been conditioned to care for any JFK portrayal. The result is that LBJ plays second in his own movie against the mourning of the staff, Kennedy’s family, and the nation as a whole.
If anything really succeeds in this movie it is the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as someone who just desperately wanted to be in this position but received it at the wrong time to lead in the way that he wanted. You can feel how painful it was to not be loved by the country as much as Kennedy was, both before and after the assassination. One particularly pointed scene between Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) and Johnson in the Oval Office explored the tension between the flashy young liberal and the gruff conservative Democrat, with the latter baring his soul for a moment to ask why he wasn’t liked. The theme of being undeserving is pervasive, but it is not something to hang a movie on.
Harrelson’s performance is large and straightforward. There is volume and strength but it isn’t balanced with nuance or depth. He still commands the screen, but it comes off as more of a caricature than a case study. Too many times are his interpersonal relationships explored through his friendship with racially-biased Georgia politician Richard Russell Jr (a one-note Richard Jenkins) and not enough time is spent showing the negotiating and politicking work Johnson was doing until the assassination. We are reminded of his Southern Democratic roots to the point that you wonder if Rob Reiner is explaining away some of the more questionable parts of Johnson’s presidency by reminding us the draconian politics that he came from.
Due to this lack of balance, it is hard to know where Johnson actually lies. When he makes the decision to push for the Civil Rights Act, it seems to come out of nowhere. Though a scene of bewildered staffers reflect the audience, it seems strange not to include some indication of his belief in the legislation. The second half ends feeling rushed and out of place, the end of a different cut of the same movie.
LBJ tries to show us more about a man who is better remembered for what put him into the presidency and his handling of a messy war that he inherited than for the amazing things that he did during his time in office. We see glimpses of the political and emotional obstacles that he had to overcome in order to leave the nation as the President of the United States. Unfortunately, this movie does little but barely scratch the surface of a private, but, complex man.