Film Review: LBJ

Outstanding biopic about the complex, cunning and endearing soon-to-be civil-rights hero catapulted to POTUS hits career high points for both star Woody Harrelson and director Rob Reiner.
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The knee-jerk reaction to the prospect of a Lyndon Baines Johnson biopic might be winces among some older filmgoers who were part of the anti-war generation, as LBJ escalated our Vietnam involvement. But LBJ the movie is a hugely accomplished, researched and continually gripping drama that focuses on Johnson in the early ’60s when he became the major force behind the enactment of the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act that Congress had rejected for decades.

It was in 1960 that Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) tapped Johnson (Woody Harrelson), the former influential Democratic majority leader, to be his VP running mate, a gesture strongly opposed by Kennedy’s equally ambitious younger brother Robert (Michael Stahl-David, in an eerily convincing role). Also immediately established is Kennedy’s determination to finally get the Civil Rights bill passed.

With Kennedy’s victory, LBJ discovers that the role of VP carries little power (underscored by a committee meeting he convenes to which the important players send their flunkies). With RFK installed as his brother’s Attorney General, longhorns are locked: RFK, a determined liberal from great wealth and an Ivy League education, views LBJ as a South Texas bumpkin with accompanying Southern flaws, and LBJ isn’t blind to such elitist prejudices. But it’s LBJ who can more cunningly play people and who has the power base.

Via a convincing re-enactment, archival footage and well-timed flashbacks, the film portrays the assassination of JFK convincingly. Even in the immediate aftermath before LBJ is sworn in as President on the plane back to D.C., he and RFK are at each other again, squabbling about details of the transition.

Most of what follows once Johnson and staff are settled into the White House (the new President keeps on most of Kennedy’s men) hangs by the two sturdy threads of the rivalry and the struggle to get the traditionally resistant Congress to legislate for integration. In the wake of tragedy, LBJ is shown as a remarkably take-charge man of action and persuasion.

His mission as President, he believes, is to turn JFK’s dreams into reality. While RFK consistently believes his rival to be anti-civil rights, Johnson fights to get the legislation through. His key obstacle to this is also his former mentor and longtime ally, powerful Georgia Democrat Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), through whom LBJ will display his remarkable skills as a politician and manipulator. A straight-talker also shown here as a raconteur full of laconic quotes, smart jokes and historical anecdotes, LBJ will eventually call the Senator a racist to his face. As RFK’s disdain for Johnson continues (though LBJ has kept him on as Attorney General), the President is forced to ask him why he has so much animosity. It eventually becomes clear that RFK is already eying a 1968 run for the presidency and LBJ might be an obstacle.

LBJ is richly peopled with many more of the era’s well-known personalities (Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, Pierre Salinger, etc.), but their roles in the film are much overshadowed by the key operatives in the march to civil-rights legislation. LBJ keeps on Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen (Brent Bailey), who will be responsible for his historic first address to Congress that revealed the President’s determination to act beyond the dreams and talk.

Harrelson, Jenkins, Stahl-David, Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone should attract awards attention. And Jennifer Jason Leigh—known for going “large,” intense and loud in roles—here gives a beautifully nuanced performance as LBJ’s loyal, stabilizing Southern wife who glows with quiet dignity.

Entertaining every step of the way and sure to appeal to all mature audiences no matter their politics, LBJ also works as another wake-up call, a troubling reminder of the kind of leaders that history has consistently given us until now. And, along with insights into prejudice and the American class war, the smart among younger audiences will also see LBJ as a playbook for fulfilling, against the odds but with respect, an effective political strategy that actually gets good things done in government.

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