Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” was surely the cruelest slogan ever chanted at an American President. Appropriately but ironically, those words sound virtually a leitmotiv in LBJ: A Biography, a four-hour documentary about the brilliant, extravagant, ultimately tragic 36th President of the United States.
Previously seen on public television’s American Experience series, LBJ focuses as steadily on the striking frustrations of Lyndon B. Johnson’s life and presidency as on the nightmare descent into what he called ”that bitch of a war” in Vietnam. Through archival film and numerous interviews with people who worked with him, including Dean Rusk, Sargent Shriver, and John Connally Jr., Emmy-winning writer-producer-director David Grubin maintains that the President saw no way to turn back; he could only ”hunker down” and resist all suggestions that the war was either wrong or unwinnable. It was both, however. And its vain, dogged pursuit ruined Johnson’s presidency and — this film strongly implies — his life.
In 1964 and ’65, LBJ had become perhaps the most powerful President in history, reassuring the nation after JFK’s assassination, guiding the landmark 1964 civil rights bill through Congress, and presiding over a tide of legislation to establish what, with typical grandiosity, he termed the Great Society. But ahead lay the ”long hot summers” of the late ’60s, when urban blacks erupted in violent protest, as well as the rising storm of the ) increasingly unpopular war. Johnson understood neither reaction but was tortured — personally and politically — by both.
All this is recalled in sometimes wrenching detail in the last two hours of a film that took more than five years to put together. From B-52 bombing raids of terrible power to American soldiers in action to a South Vietnamese officer shooting a suspect in cold blood, the horrors of Vietnam are vividly depicted. The film’s first two hours span nearly a half century, chronicling Johnson’s rise from backwoods Texas politics to the House, the Senate, the majority leadership, the vice presidency, and the White House. These two hours conclude with LBJ’s huge victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, correctly presented as a short-lived moment of glory.
It is this documentary’s singular merit that it never blinks from the stark fact that what negated his achievements in the public’s eyes was the ugly little war on the other side of the world. LBJ himself was a true casualty of that war, his life’s meaning and purpose blasted by his own unrelenting hand. B+