Some years, two movies about the same subject inexplicably compete for viewers’ attention. You know, like ‘Volcano’ vs. ‘Dante’s Peak’ or ‘Armageddon’ vs. ‘Deep Impact’. Well, that happened again this year, and for some reason the movies being doubled up are bio-pics about Lyndon B. Johnson.
Bryan Cranston already got his crack at the bat with the HBO movie ‘All the Way‘ (based on a play he did on Broadway). Now Woody Harrelson plays the Texas Democrat who took over for JFK. This one was directed by Rob Reiner, which should give you an indication of the type of politely respectful bio-pic to expect, in all the good ways and bad.
Rather than going for a full life story, ‘LBJ’ narrows in on the politician’s years with the Kennedys. After competing for the Democratic nomination, JFK invited Johnson to be his Vice President in order to help win over the Southern states. It worked, but then LBJ found himself in an awkward position of having no real power in the Kennedy administration, other than to operate as a liaison between the President and non-progressives. That all changed one dark day in Dallas. Yet when Johnson took office, he made sure to continue all of Kennedy’s finest ideas, particularly in regards to Civil Rights. Obviously, that summary leaves out the whole Vietnam debacle, but so does the movie.
Rob Reiner’s vision of LBJ is very cuddly and friendly with a little vulgarity for flavor. He presents the guy as a spicy tamale with a knack for saucy language, but ultimately a good ol’ soul who would have been just as good as JFK if he were handsomer. Woody Harrelson is admittedly fantastic in the role, which is good because the makeup is not. It essentially looks like he’s wearing a rubber LBJ mask with articulation, but thankfully he disappears so thoroughly into the character that after a while you don’t notice. It’s a shame that neither Harrelson nor the movie get to dive into the darker aspects of LBJ’s legacy and the war, but inspirational “important man” Oscar bait bio-pics aren’t about such things!
Weirdly, Bill Pullman plays a war hungry Senator in a role that reappears and disappears with odd focus, which suggests that some material got cut out. Maybe this was a more complicated movie at one point. Ultimately, that doesn’t matter, because it’s not the case now.
As a friendly intro to LBJ that makes audiences feel good about not being racist, I suppose the film is OK. Harrelson’s central performance is great (especially whenever he gets dirty), as is Michael Stahl-David’s as Robert Kennedy, and their feuding sequences crackle with life. Everything else is just very welcoming and safe in a manner that should work for middlebrow audiences and Golden Globes voters, but not so much for anyone particularly interested in the subject matter. I guess the rest of us will need to go to HBO for that.