It's LBJ – minus all contradiction and complexity

by James Robins / 13 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - LBJ movie

The nuance of LBJ’s presidency goes missing in Rob Reiner’s tepid biopic.

Did you know that the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, had a pet dog called Little Beagle Johnson? This morsel pops up in Rob Reiner’s film about the brash Texan who succeeded John F Kennedy, and it’s probably the most interesting thing about it.

Johnson was a contradictory figure – a Southern Democrat who pushed against his base to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964, presided over America’s greatest moment of prosperity and introduced national health insurance while bombing villages to bits in Vietnam.

Reiner’s film, which pinballs between the 1960 Democratic Convention and the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, isn’t interested in this complexity. And, working from a wooden script, Woody Harrelson has to emote through thick latex jowls in the title role. With his hooked nose and dangling earlobes, he resembles one of those banking goblins from Harry Potter.

Yet he manages to give off an impression of brazenness. “I’m going to need people to f---ing like me,” he hollers to his aides from his perch on the loo.

To Richard Jenkins is thrown the thankless task of playing Richard Russell Jr, an ardent filibustering segregationist, which he does well. Still, his role is less thankless than Jennifer Jason Leigh’s as Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, who exists merely as a lap for him to cry on.

The general disappointment of LBJ calls to mind better depictions of presidential authority. Not Oliver Stone’s Nixon or even Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Rather, Pablo Larraín’s fractured, turbulent Jackie from last year, a film that barely featured any presidents but examined how their history, mythology and reputation can be curated and twisted to sympathetic ends, regardless of the truth.

In one of LBJ’s closing scenes, Johnson looks admiringly at a portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt on the wall of the Oval Office. There’s a hint of ambition in his gaze, and the threat of failure. We’re left only to ponder what a decent cinematic treatment of Johnson’s life would look like. HBO’s All the Way, in 2016, focused mainly on LBJ’s negotiations with Martin Luther King. But this film by veteran director Reiner, who was last in the White House for 1995’s fictitious The American President, falls short.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★

This article was first published in the August 18, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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