By Jeff Jensen
May 18, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO
  • TV Show

Spoiler Alert: Politics is war, dirty and debasing. Fought by profoundly flawed vulgarians—mostly white men with bad hair—who’ll do anything to win, even sabotage their own party. What civil servant in their right mind could possibly behave so badly? The answer, of course, is…Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States. Who else? 

Adapted from the acclaimed 2012 play by Robert Schenkkan, All the Way stars Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as LBJ in a TV movie that chronicles the wheeling and dealing required to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and win the election. It presents as slick docudrama, but it’s more interested in deconstructing power than history lesson. Here, LBJ’s desire to break racist Southern culture and earn the White House is explained by a mess psychology. Complexity flows from Cranston. He can’t replicate LBJ’s girth or age, but his ferocious performance—aided by seamless makeup and helmer Jay Roach’s framing—is fully convincing. 

The first hour is the strongest—a rich essay on realpolitik hustling driven by LBJ’s uneasy alliance with Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie). Its second hour tracks the human cost of a ruthless presidential contest that would reshape the country. The storytelling juggles too many elements—the civil rights movement, escalation in Vietnam, LBJ’s relationship with his wife (Melissa Leo). Still, in Cranston you should trust. He mesmerizes even with a shaggy narrative. All the Way can’t trump our current political drama. But you might wish it could. B

2016 TV movie
  • TV Show
  • 05/21/16
  • In Season
Complete Coverage