Sunday, November 12, 2017

LBJ (2017)

LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

Rated:  R

STARS: Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Richard Jenkins
DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner
GENRE: Docudrama

Many of us who lived through the sixties remember Lyndon Baines Johnson as a redneck from Texas who rose above the prejudices of his upbringing to instigate the most important piece of social legislation in the history of the United States--the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But we also despised him for escalating the Vietnam war, and it was his unpopularity due to the war that brought him to the decision not to run for a second term. That aspect of his legacy is given scant attention in LBJ. Instead, the film concentrates almost exclusively on the period leading up to the historic legislation of 1964 and how it was accomplished. So in this particular version of history, the man comes out smelling like a rose.

The major flaw in LBJ is that it's too talky--way too talky--as Johnson twists arms and makes deals, even while sitting on the crapper. Not unexpected, I suppose, for a character study about a politician (too much talk and not enough action!) Rob Reiner--a director I admire--does what he can to counteract the draggy parts by interspersing them with an impressively realistic recreation of that terrible day in Dallas when John Fitzgerald Kennedy met his fate.

Woody Harrelson knocks it out of the park in the title role. Only they've got him made up to look even uglier (sorta grotesque even) than the real Lyndon Johnson was, and that's saying something. On the other hand, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson is so spot on in appearance and mannerism it's scary. You have to use your imagination with the rest of the supporting cast---Jeffrey Donovan in particular, who bears little resemblance to JFK, though he has the accent down. I guess William Devane is too old to play the forever young president now. 

Those who remember the charismatic Bobby Kennedy will be taken aback by Michael Stahl-David's portrayal. He comes off as a kind of vindictive little shit in his not so well publicized at the time feud with LBJ. I don't think it does Bobby's legacy justice.

But LBJ is a film you may want to see--especially if you're a history buff--as it provides some deft insight into the character of the 36th president of the United States.   

Grade:  B -


Tim pretty much covered it in his review. I, too, thought they overdid the makeup on Woody Harrelson. (On the other hand, I thought Bryan Cranston as LBJ in "All The Way" looked incredibly like the former president.) What I admired most about this cinematic slice of history was the editing. Whether the credit belongs to Rob Reiner (director), Joey Hartstone (screenplay writer) or Bob Joyce (film editor), the way they kept flashing back and forth between Dallas and JFK's actual assassination, and LBJ's life before that horrific event, was a definite tension-builder.

For me, the one actor Tim didn't mention gave an Oscar-worthy performance. Having already received a Best Actor nomination for The Visitor(2009), Richard Jenkins deserves a Best Supporting Actor this year for playing the old school segregationist Senator Richard Russell. (Jenkins became one of my personal favorites when he appeared in the TV series "Six Feet Under.")

But while I'm on the subject of Oscars, I'm sorry that Woody Harrelson, who will probably be nominated twice this year for both this flick and The Glass Castle, won't win anything. (Double nominees never do.) If I were voting, I'd give him the gold statuette for his role as Rex Walls not LBJ....

As I was leaving the theater, comparing notes with my film-going accomplice, an elderly woman turn to us and said "We lived through this time, didn't we!" It made me wonder how a younger generation, one unfamiliar with this particular segment of political history, would view the movie. Would it hold their attention? I'm betting it would.

Grade: B +