Tuesday, October 31, 2017

“LBJ”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “LBJ”, starring Woody Harrelson and directed by Rob Reiner. 


When Lyndon Baines Johnson unexpectedly finds himself President Of The United States, can he rise to the occasion and display leadership?


As Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Lyndon Johnson (Harrelson) of Texas wielded great power; he could either make sure things got done or guarantee they would hit a dead-end.  After losing the Democratic nomination for President Of The United States to a young and handsome John Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) in 1960, it was something of a curiosity as to why Johnson would accept Kennedy’s offer to run on the ticket alongside him.  Since Johnson would be Vice President if Kennedy won, his power and influence would surely evaporate and he would lose his Senate seat.  Yet this seemed like an irresistible opportunity.  

Kennedy won the election by the slimmest of margins and predictably, Johnson got marginalized by the new President and his closest advisors – especially, Kennedy’s younger brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David), who is now also Attorney General of The United States.  Johnson becomes increasingly frustrated by his irrelevance and decides instead to plan for 1968, thinking he would run for President following Kennedy’s second term (assuming, of course, that he would get re-elected).  However, Johnson knew his chances weren’t great because not that many incumbent Vice Presidents ever got elected. 

Fate intervened on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated; Johnson then assumed the position of President, much to the immense consternation of Bobby Kennedy, who of course was also still mourning the loss of his brother.  Instead of proceeding with his own agenda, Johnson decided it would be best to proceed with Kennedy’s policies – the main one being Civil Rights.  The problem, however, would come in the form of resistance from Johnson’s former Senate colleagues – especially the ones from the Southern states.  Would Johnson succumb to their pressure or would he be able to get a Civil Rights Act into law?    


“LBJ” is going to be remembered for one very important reason:  the fact that it is distinctly unmemorable.  For a movie that purports to document a crucial event in American history, it is stunning how lacking it is in substance; you are better off viewing HBO’s “All The Way” starring Bryan Cranston – not only does the HBO flick have a much better script (it was based on a play that also starred Cranston), but Cranston’s portrayal of President Johnson is far superior to that of Harrelson’s.  Cranston made you feel that Lyndon Johnson truly inhabited him whereas Harrelson is relying on a sloppy make-up job and an unconvincing accent (despite the fact that both he and the late president hail from the same state). 

The screenplay is amateurish in both the way it clumsily attempts to convey exposition and also in the confusing manner in which it jumps around chronologically, especially in its early scenes.  Additionally, there seems to be something of an inexplicable attempt to make “LBJ” a hagiography; it tries to portray its subject heroically in large part by making others around him seem much worse – this is especially true when it comes to the way that Bobby Kennedy was played.  Based on the way it comes across in the film, the main reason for the sour relationship between the younger Kennedy and his brother’s Vice President is due to the bad attitude Bobby had towards Johnson. 

Despite being a gifted actor in his own right, Harrelson cannot elevate this script; in fact, as good as he may be, Harrelson may have bit off more than he can chew when picking this role because there was nothing he was going to be able to do to make either himself or the movie look good.  He is unbelievable as Johnson and both this role and this motion picture are beneath him.  Also, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson is totally wasted here; as the president’s wife, her character is ornamental and one-dimensional.  If the character did not appear at all, she would not have been missed.          

LBJ (2016) on IMDb

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