The first thing that has to be stated about’ LBJ’ is that the makeup Woody Harrelson has been shoved into to play the titular President is absolutely horrible. It looks like a Halloween mask with moving lips. Big rubbery earlobes distractingly jiggle whenever the actor gets animated, pulling viewers out of the experience. It’s some of the worst prosthetics work to appear in a mainstream movie since Leonardo DiCaprio in the justly forgotten ‘J. Edgar’. Rob Reiner’s film containing that makeup is slightly better overall, but not by much.
For those unfamiliar with the Presidential acronym, Lyndon B. Johnson was JFK’s Vice President who took over shortly after the assassination. His legacy is marred by the fact that he shoved America into the Vietnam war, even though he was also responsible for opening up more social programs than any President since the Depression. He also played a huge role in helping push many of Kennedy’s most radical ideas onto an older generation of politicians. LBJ was a complicated man and, in as much as a glossy award-friendly bio-pic can, Rob Reiner’s new film attempts to delve into all sides of him. We see a man whose progressive views made a major impact on his country, but was also riddled with insecurities and had no problem speaking to his staff from the comfort of his toilet.
As a work of historical storytelling, the movie suffers from common jumbled Cliff’s Notes flaws inherent in so many entries in this genre. The story races through huge portions of LBJ’s career that could easily be entire films unto themselves (some even have been given that treatment recently in titles like ‘Jackie’, ‘Selma’, and obviously Bryan Cranston’s own LBJ film ‘All the Way’). There’s quite often the sense that Reiner is rushing through segments that deserve far more attention, while lingering on material that seems pointless.
Admirably, the movie doesn’t succumb to pure hero worship and is willing to engage with some of LBJ’s most problematic policies, choices and beliefs. The filmmakers seem to care about honoring the complexities of the man and his legacy, while still making sure that everything wraps up in a tidy bow in a reasonable running time. Like so many of Reiner’s movies, a genuine artistic and intellectual ambition rubs up against middlebrow sappy satisfaction, and the director never quite finds a way to reconcile his ambitions with his determination to please the strip mall cinema masses.
For whatever it’s worth, ‘LBJ’ is unexpectedly funny. Harrelson is able to get his performance past the crappy makeup and find amusing ways to portray his loudmouth character’s noble scheming and manipulating. It’s a big, broad performance that often lurches over-the-top, but is suited to the material and well supported by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s rubber-nosed wife. As is the Rob Reiner way, the actual filmmaking and visual storytelling are perfunctory at best. He’s not particularly good at hiding the budgetary limitations of the production or smoothing over the storytelling in places where large portions have clearly been edited out. It can be rough jumble of a movie, lurching from fascinating and funny portions to scenes that make you wonder why the production landed on cinema screens rather than a quick television release.
Undoubtedly, this movie didn’t quite live up the ambitions of anyone involved. However, it’s also not a complete disaster deserving of instant dismissal and mockery. Much like the impressive Woody Harrelson performance wrapped in unfortunate prosthetics, something interesting is going on in ‘LBJ’ beneath the flawed surface. You just have to forgive quite a bit to find it.