As biopics often do, the made-in-New Orleans “LBJ” narrows its focus to a specific, intense period in the life of its subject.
A master politician, Lyndon Baines Johnson rose from legislative secretary for a Texas congressman to his own congressional seat to Senate majority leader to vice president. An assassin’s bullets made him president.
“LBJ” concentrates on four years of Johnson’s four decades in politics. In nonlinear style, the film follows him from his failed bid for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination to the assassination of John F. Kennedy to Johnson’s subsequent decision to propel the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress.
Even if the conventional “LBJ” is less than inspiring, this solid portrait of the 36th president of the United States usually works, despite a heavy, affected orchestral score that draws too much attention to itself.
Rob Reiner directs a high-achieving cast led by Woody Harrelson. As Johnson, Texas native Harrelson grabs one of the best parts he’s ever had by the ears. Joey Hartstone’s script is especially illustrative of Johnson’s savvy and persuasiveness in the halls of power.
Harrelson donned elongated ears and a slicked-back toupee to portray the president. Despite the prosthetics, the actor doesn’t match Bryan Cranston’s resemblance to Johnson in the recent Broadway play and HBO drama “All the Way.” Nor is the straightforwardly staged “LBJ” likely to draw as much praise as “All the Way,” which mirrors the events in “LBJ.”
“LBJ” also arrives after last’s year’s “Jackie.” A daring, difficult biopic about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, “Jackie” recounts and embellishes the Kennedy widow’s life in the days after JFK's assassination. Johnson is only a bit player in the highly personal “Jackie,” just as Mrs. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King (a major character in “All the Way”) are bystanders in “LBJ.”
But President Kennedy is a major presence in “LBJ,” before and after his death. Jeffrey Donovan plays a naturally poised Kennedy. The privileged yet accessible young senator from Massachusetts used his charisma and photogenic good looks to defeat Johnson at the 1960 Democratic convention and Richard Nixon in the race for the White House.
“Lyndon, you have more experience and more talent and more wisdom,” President-elect Kennedy tells Johnson after the Democratic convention. “Unfortunately, this is politics and none of that matters.”
JFK’s calculation that he needs Johnson to win the South prompts him to ask the powerful senator to be his running mate. An aide cautions Johnson not to take the job. But Senate majority leader Johnson believes otherwise.
“Can you think of a time that I have taken over a new office and not made it 100 times more powerful than when I got there?” Johnson asks the aide. “Power is where power goes.”
Johnson was wrong. Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, blocks Johnson’s attempts to find purpose. Michael Stahl-David plays RFK, a constantly derisive, painful thorn in the vice president’s side. The attorney general gets almost no sympathy from the script or Stahl-David’s portrayal. They both paint RFK as a ruthless politician who marginalizes Johnson at every turn.
But then JFK’s assassination in 1963 catapulted Vice President Johnson to the presidency. In the minutes and hours after JFK’s death, the LBJ biopic comes to vivid life. Behind the scenes of the shocking national tragedy, Harrelson’s Johnson takes decisive command.
Privately, Johnson confides feelings of failure to his wife, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh). “They want Jack,” he says. “They love Bobby. They don’t even like me.” Mrs. Johnson counters the defeatism. JFK was a man of vision and ideals, she says, but her husband is a man who gets it done.
The new president quickly finds purpose. He throws his talent and support, plus the good will generated by a grieving nation, behind the civil rights initiative JFK launched shortly before his death. “LBJ” showcases, if only briefly, one of Johnson’s high notes in the White House, his push to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But in the selective history of “LBJ,” the elephant in the room, the Vietnam War, is a footnote. The unpopular conflict led Johnson to pass on seeking a second term. Widely seen as a miscalculation, one that overshadows Johnson’s civil rights and social legislation legacy, the war divided the nation and cost 58,220 American deaths.
Anyone with even a casual knowledge of the 1960s, Johnson and the Vietnam War may see “LBJ” as a portrait unfinished. On the other hand, his finest hours are there.
STARRING: Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Stahl-David, Jeffrey Donovan, Bill Pullman
DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner
RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 38 mins.
MPAA RATING: R (Restricted) Under 17 requires accompanying parents or adult guardian.
WHY IS THIS MOVIE RATED R? For language.
Excellent (****), Good (***), Fair (**), Poor (*)
NOW PLAYING: AMC Elmwood Palace 20