LBJ's M.O.: Rob Reiner and Woody Harrelson explore the contradictions of the 36th President

Movies Features

Rob Reiner has just made his second cinematic trek to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

His first (scripted by Aaron Sorkin four years before he found his way into “The West Wing”) was a 1995 fictional foray with Michael Douglas as The American President, a widower in love with a lobbyist. His return now is with Woody Harrelson as LBJ, somberly assuming the office—and the civil-rights agenda—of an assassinated JFK.

But, in real life, Reiner says he’s not planning a third visit anytime soon. “I wouldn’t be comfortable there,” he explains elliptically. “The present resident calls it a dump.”

Once a “Meathead,” always a “Meathead.” Before turning into a first-class director, Reiner made his major mark on the American psyche as the actor playing Michael Stivic, the bane of Archie Bunker’s existence—his leftist live-in son-in-law—for eight seasons of “All in the Family”and a bit beyond. This Democratic stance isn’t a stretch.

Reiner and Harrelson both went into this project with profoundly mixed feelings about Lyndon Baines Johnson, and both were gingerly cajoled into taking it on.

“I was very nervous about making this movie,” the director is quick to confess. “During the Vietnam War, I was of draft age, so all I saw was a guy who could send me to my death. I was against the war, and he was my enemy. [Not] until I spent a lot of time in politics, working on public policy—I actually had a job in California government for seven years—did I understand and appreciate what he achieved.”

Harrelson was of the same persuasion and generation, requiring some pretty heavy lifting on Reiner’s part to bring the actor up to a more balanced view of our 36th President, countering his Vietnam catastrophe with his heroic social legislation.

“What we have here, I told Woody, is a tale of two presidencies. Were it not for Vietnam, Johnson would go down as one of the great Presidents. On a domestic level, he’s second only to FDR. He accomplished a tremendous amount—Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Voting Rights—things that we still have that have changed the landscape of America. But you can’t separate Vietnam. It’s there. So, if it is a tale of two presidencies, who’s this guy in between? That’s what I wanted to get at.”

Harrelson bought the spiel 100 percent and calibrated his performance accordingly. The extensive prosthetics that turned Harrelson into Johnson, says Reiner, “took two hours every day to put on and an hour to take off, but Woody didn’t waste that time: He listened to an audio of Johnson while doing it to get himself in character.”

Not that the actor needed a deep dive into a Texas dialect. He spent his first 13 years in the state, so it didn’t take much to authenticate his portrayal. LBJ’s flashes of fury and vulgarity seem homegrown, his political arm-twisting almost second nature.

The result stands up well against the LBJ both Reiner and Harrelson admire: Bryan Cranston’s in All the Way. It got a Tony in 2014 and an Emmy nomination in 2016.

All the Way did give the two men pause, but it didn’t deter LBJ. “We realized we couldn’t come out at the same time,” says Reiner. “Theirs was shown on HBO last year, and ours is just getting to theatres [via Electric Entertainment]. The two films also deal with different periods of LBJ’s life. Their film was all about the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and our film is about Johnson assuming the Presidency after the death of Kennedy.”

Joey Hartstone’s screenplay actually gives you two Johnsons for the price of one LBJ. First is the good ol’ boy in the ten-gallon hat with rough edges and political finesse who was picked by John Kennedy to be his running mate because only he could talk to both head-butting factions (Southern Democrats and the Kennedy progressives). Then there was the shaken new President who embraced and executed JFK’s civil-rights ideas even when they ran counter to the still-existing Dixie dogma of his past.

Recurring throughout the film, separating these two Johnsons like a psychic scar, are painful flashbacks to Nov. 22, 1963, and Reiner shot the assassination sequence precisely where it happened. He has done this before. In 1996, for Ghosts of Mississippi, he did a site-specific recreation of another assassination that occurred also in 1963—Medgar Evers’ on June 13 in Jackson, Mississippi. James Woods, as the assassin who escaped imprisonment for 30 years, not only got an Oscar nomination for the performance but also seriously rattled Evers’ widow, Myrlie, who, according to Reiner, “thought that the man who killed her husband had come back to life.”

“The Dallas shoot was really difficult. First of all, they told us we only had six hours to do it because the mayor didn’t want to tie up traffic all day. We planned carefully.”

There are surprising flecks of humor and politically savvy one-liners in the film, but Reiner insists Harrelson didn’t toss those in. What he says the actor did do—in tandem with his Lady Bird, Jennifer Jason Leigh—was ad-lib a big dramatic scene.

“It was a scene in their bedroom when he’s frightened of not being loved and accepted by the public. He and Jennifer added some dialogue to that scene. To me, it’s an important scene. It shows her strength and her ability to get him to move on.”

Reiner contends that Johnson didn’t make a sharp ideological right turn once he hit the Oval Office. He feels the seeds for the good works he created as President were already buried in his past. “The movie doesn’t get into it,” he allows, “but I found that in my research—and in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography [Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream]. Lyndon came from a very poor area in West Texas in the hill country. He taught in impoverished schools, so there was—early on—a part of him that had an affinity for the underprivileged. You can’t just turn on a dime and say, ‘I’m going to create The Great Society, declare war on poverty and help people.’

“He had those feelings but never put them out there because, electorally, he could never win with that and, legislatively, he could never get it done. In the film, he tells the Kennedys, ‘If you put this civil-rights bill on the floor of the United States Congress right now, it will never become law.’ He knew the Congress. He knew how it worked. Even after Kennedy died, he still needed the drumbeat that Martin Luther King was providing in order to line up the number of votes that he needed.

“It’s not that he suddenly became a civil-rights advocate. He had that antecedent, and the genius of that was in him, but he also knew legislatively when to move forward. He had this recurring dream of being paralyzed, but once he got over that, he was determined that he was going to make his presidency count. He was going to take the opportunity and make the most of it. Like he said: ‘This has got to be more than just a big shiny plane and a room with no corners. Otherwise, why be President?’”