It feels like every president should, at some point have a definitive movie, telling the story of their time in the Oval Office. LBJ would clearly like to be that as it’s title is simply the famous initials of the president it’s covering. (The other LBJ movie to come out recently was called All the Way) but with that in mind, it’s interesting to see how the movie chooses to approach the political life of Johnson.
Starting on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, the movie uses that day as a framing device for a huge block of the movie. Rather than focus on the time that LBJ spend in the Oval Office, the movie spends the bulk of its runtime on the years before that. LBJ’s story starts with Johnson himself contemplating a run for the office of President. As Johnson goes back and forth with his decision, part of what’s fascinating to watch is the process of how one would go about seeking the nomination in 1960, compared the the campaign season we went through last year. It’s an unintentional side effect of the movie, but often you can’t help but with that we could stray a little further from LBJ’s personal journey and get some more insight on how the political party of 1960 operated.
Settling for second in command after an unsuccessful bit at the presidency, John is quickly kept at arm’s length from anything that he would consider meaningful or worthy of his time. Harrelson’s portrayal of Johnson feeds off of the frustration that Johnson is feeling during the first several months of his vice-presidency. At every turn he seems to be blocked, often from within by members of the Kennedy family. We get a short, but really well put together scene between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother, about their respective political careers, suggesting that both of them plan on making a play for the Presidency when John F. Kennedy’s time is over.
Johnson finally gets his foot in the door when Kennedy, trying to push through a civil rights act, needs to deal with the southern democratic party members, who view Johnson as a friend. The movie is at its best when Johnson is playing these political games and we get to see how good he is at it. There are several dinner scenes between Johnson and Senator Richard Fussell (played by Richard Jenkins) who leads a group of southern politicians intent on keeping segregation in tact in the south and getting rid of any legislation that would force them to do otherwise.
A huge chunk of the movie is dedicated to LBJ’s time as the vice-president and his actions following the immediate aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy. The movie never even really gets out of the first year of Johnson’s presidency, and never really touches on the Vietnam war at all besides a single line of dialogue and a brief mention of it in the epilogue text at the end of the movie. Which makes this movie ultimately, and interesting but somewhat confusing portrayal of LBJ. The average moviegoer can likely only name one or two things about Johnson’s time as president, those two things usually being the Civil Rights act and Vietnam. Because the movie chooses to focus on one and not the other, it feels like we’re getting a dramatically enjoyable but ultimately sanitized version of the history.
Johnson is portrayed simultaneously as a power hungry politician with his eyes always on the prize, and as a good man who will do the right thing because it’s simply the right thing to do. For the most part, Woody Harrelson is able to make these seemingly contradictory attitudes work but the movie doesn’t necessarily do him any favors with the character. Johnson is a complicated historical figure, and while there are several scenes of Johnson struggling with complicated situations, it feels like ultimately, the movie took care to stray from the more uncomfortable aspects of Johnson’s time in the White House. It’s a good movie, but if feels like we might need to keep waiting for the definitive Lyndon B. Johnson movie.
Tags: film, LBJ, movie, review, Woody Harrelson