Watched Jan. 29th, 2020 on Amazon Prime
Director – Rob Reiner
Starring – Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Donovan, Richard Jenkins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bill Pullman, Michael Stahl-David
Rob Reiner’s directing career has a bipolarity to it. He has found the most success in parody with his delightful debut This Is Spinal Tap and the ultimate fantasy-adventure parody film The Princess Bride – a real pantheon achievement. However, his most successful “serious” film, A Few Good Men, is hardly a joke despite its larger-than-life caricatures of military and political realities in America. LBJ is an even more dramatic approach than anything I’ve seen from Reiner and I think it serves him well as a demonstration of the breadth of his talent.
Lyndon Johnson is one of my least favorite Presidents. In graduate school, I’ve had the opportunity to dig a little deeper into his personality, rise, and reign and it hasn’t gotten any more attractive. Woody and Reiner aren’t necessarily set on ignoring his warts, but the film is a concerted effort to present a positive image of a man who undoubtedly faced one of the most difficult challenges in American political history. Considerable physical alterations don’t do a particularly good job of hiding the extremely recognizable Harrelson but his overall performance is very effective and compelling. The impact of Kennedy’s death on Johnson both personally and politically was a profound thing in the history of our nation and Reiner tried to give it proper gravity.
The primary issue I had with the film is its reductionism. Vietnam, a place that dominated American politics for three Presidencies and defined Johnson’s, was mentioned in passing one time. Richard Nixon’s relationship with the Kennedy-Johnson ticket was completely ignored. The southern democrats, portrayed aptly by Richard Jenkins, were also reduced to a caricature of the Lost Cause movement. Even the central event of the story, the Civil Rights Act, lacked punch due to the complete absence of any minority characters. MLK is mentioned in passing and Johnson relays a couple of stories about his maid, an irony not lost on his opposition, and otherwise, the white-knight trope is in full force.
The conflicts to be resolved rotated around Johnson’s political enemies. At first, his enemies were the Kennedy’s. Jack for the nomination and later Bobby during their administration, all the while dealing with Senators Ralph Yarbrough (Bill Pullman) Richard Russell (Jenkins) and the other southern Democrats. Interestingly, all of these antagonists were from his own party. Neither Nixon nor Goldwater appears in the film despite being the leaders of the opposite party for the period the film shows. That draws out a fascinating aspect of Johnson’s place among Democrats of his time. With the ascent of the Kennedys, he was an outsider yet when the White House was dropped on him he managed to be seemingly against everyone but capable of working with anyone.
In all, I enjoyed the film and recommend it. It had some good lines and while telling that story without Kennedy’s assassination would be impossible, it wasn’t done in an indulgent or inappropriate way in my opinion. Of the many films addressing this era, LBJ is a fine addition squarely in the middle of the pack. 3.5 of 5 stars.