LBJ (2016) ☆ ☆ ☆

LBJ is indeed a historical portrait of our 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.  But it certainly is not his life story.  This film takes a very narrow view of the man who became president with John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  A few flashbacks present him as a Senatorial wheeler dealer prior to the 1960 presidential race, which he joined very late in the game.  Then it follows him trying to find something concrete to do as Vice President, before ascending upon the November 22, 1963 tragedy.

Rob Reiner’s film is staged to do one thing — to detail how Johnson (Woody Harrelson) moved from being a somewhat bigoted Texas lawmaker to a champion of the civil rights cause following Kennedy’s passing.  Reiner is mostly successful in showing how Johnson was affected by John F. Kennedy, all the while battling JFK’s brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David), who despised him.  One key scene has Johnson describing how his cook is afraid to drive alone through Texas to his political staff; this scene works really well, but I think it would have been even better had it been told by the woman herself.  To have everything be said or seen through Johnson himself actually lessens the effectiveness a bit; there are some things he should have been seen witnessing rather than later talking about.

It’s pretty much a one-man show, too.  Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has a few moments of wisdom and care to impart, while Senators Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman) and Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) are important to the story, but in the end it’s all about Johnson.  Thankfully, Woody Harrelson is up for the job — he’s terrific — and his dialogue is smart and satisfying.  Johnson’s speech to Congress at the conclusion is masterful, and Harrelson doesn’t overplay it.  Even though I would have preferred a wider examination of Johnson’s life and times, I cannot deny that this film excels at recreating the political turmoil of the era.

No doubt the film whitewashes some of Johnson’s controversial past, though not his profane language.  It needs to show how Kennedy’s social programs were embraced and fortified by his successor, and why.  To a large degree, it succeeds, with the result that this is an engrossing exposé of governmental action, and inaction, at its highest level.  ☆ ☆ ☆.  14 November 2017.

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