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.

Latest

Give Kate A Voice: Bringing Kate Sheppard's speeches to life
96352 2018-09-24 00:00:00Z History

Give Kate A Voice: Bringing Kate Sheppard's speech…

by Noted

Famous Kiwi women read the powerful words of Kate Sheppard, who fought for the right for women to vote.

Read more
Ladies in Black – movie review
96686 2018-09-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Ladies in Black – movie review

by Russell Baillie

This nicely nostalgic female coming-of-age tale set in a Sydney department store almost sings.

Read more
A Southern man goes for gold in Garston growing hops
95518 2018-09-24 00:00:00Z Small business

A Southern man goes for gold in Garston growing ho…

by Mike White

Nelson and Motueka are well known for their hops but Garston hops are starting to be noticed by brewers.

Read more
How to lower your exposure to potentially toxic household products
96525 2018-09-24 00:00:00Z Health

How to lower your exposure to potentially toxic ho…

by Nicky Pellegrino

Alexx Stuart advocates changing one thing a week. With personal-care items, she says the place to start is body lotion.

Read more
The unrest in Chemnitz is a sign that Germany has a populist problem too
96655 2018-09-23 00:00:00Z World

The unrest in Chemnitz is a sign that Germany has …

by Cathrin Schaer

The populist contagion sweeping Europe spreads to Germany, Cathrin Schaer writes from Berlin.

Read more
The alarming new evidence about chemicals and plastics we use at home
96233 2018-09-23 00:00:00Z Science

The alarming new evidence about chemicals and plas…

by Nicky Pellegrino

From sperm counts to obesity, scientists are only beginning to understand the long-term health effects of many chemicals in everyday use.

Read more
Why preservative-free cosmetics are a tough commercial product
96522 2018-09-23 00:00:00Z Health

Why preservative-free cosmetics are a tough commer…

by Nicky Pellegrino

Preservative-free cosmetics that survive in your bathroom cupboard are a challenge, says Evolu founder Kati Kasza.

Read more
The arguments for and against allowing medicinal use of cannabis
96641 2018-09-23 00:00:00Z Psychology

The arguments for and against allowing medicinal u…

by Marc Wilson

There’s an increasing amount of evidence on cannabis effects, but it's far from straightforward.

Read more