Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Joey Hartstone
Starring Woody Harrelson, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, Jeffrey Donovan, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
“May you live in interesting times.” ~ Robert Kennedy
Never in the modern political history of the United States has there been a time where we have not lived in ‘interesting’ times. And that irony is not lost on director Rob Reiner, who made the bold choice to focus his latest film, “LBJ” on the life and career of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Joey Hartstone’s script focuses on LBJ’s idiosyncratic need to be loved and Mr. Reiner keeps that need center stage, using the constitutional crisis following JFK’s assassination as the impetus for the events. In the titular role of then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson is Woody Harrelson. Harrelson, who has had numerous roles in television and film, also has performed on stage. It is his theatrical nature along with his good humor that makes him such a suitable actor for this role.
The film opens as LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) arrive at Love Field along with JFK and Jackie. The onlookers are cheering for JFK on the bright, sunny November day in 1963. As the crowd continues to cheer for JFK, LBJ tries to engage his constituents, though they never acknowledge him. As a senator and the House Majority Leader, LBJ had even fewer friends. Never was this more apparent than the heated distaste between LBJ and Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman), who we will discover are on opposing sides of the same initiatives.
Throughout the film, flashbacks are used to show LBJ’s struggles to gain support for his own initiatives. Mr. Reiner and Mr. Heartstone use these flashbacks to support LBJ’s insecurities and Lady Bird’s rock-solid support of her husband as he suffers setback after setback. Harrelson’s performance is good natured, as he tries to work both sides of the aisle, knowing that compromise would get what he wanted, and needed done. The ongoing relationship between LBJ and Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) was key to this. Jenkins, whose career began in theater, was an excellent match for Harrelson.
Using the assassination as the focal point brings its own set of problems, namely other key players who have been seen on screen before. As JFK, Jeffrey Donovan conveyed the looks and mannerisms, but didn’t bring anything new. Kim Allen as Jackie was rightfully reduced to a smaller performance, but so much happened as the transfer of power occurred that more could have been made of her role. Michael Mosley as Kenneth O’Donnell was solid, but I kept thinking back to Kevin Costner’s performance in “Thirteen Days”; here again I wanted more.
The brightest supporting performance was Michael Stahl-David’s as Robert Kennedy, someone who hasn’t had much exposure on screen. He was the counterpoint to Mr. Jenkins’ Senator Russell, giving us the bridge that LBJ needed to heal a grieving country.
As I mention all the actors involved in the film, a theme of theatricality seems to spring to mind. Mr. Reiner gave the film a theatricality in the way it was staged. Barry Markowitz’s cinematography was static in its framing, but within the framing, there was always some level of fluidity.
The use of the flashbacks to build LBJ’s story became a challenge to sit through. Harrelson did a remarkable job performing through all of the makeup and prosthetics, but the pity party portrayed through the first two acts held the drama back.
It wasn’t until the third act, when he finally determined that he was going to push JFK’s Civil Rights Act without any changes, pushing the nation forward, that we got a true sense of what and who LBJ was. The historical context of his emotional state was interesting, but it seemed to go by the wayside once he was firmly in office.
Mr. Reiner demonstrates that he still has the technical prowess to tell stories. His eye for detail is exceptional and his flair for theatricality is second to none. “LBJ” doesn’t tick all of the boxes for me.
2 out of 4 stars