Lyndon Baines Johnson is certainly a worthy subject for a Hollywood biopic. The fact that the great biographer Robert Caro has devoted four doorstop volumes to the man (so far) should be proof enough. LBJ was a tough-as-nails Texan who could bluff, bully, or bust out a charm offensive depending on the day and the occasion. He was “The Master of the Senate,” able to forge compromise at a time when our nation was bitterly divided. He was a vice president who stoically steered the country through one of its greatest tragedies when JFK was assassinated. His accomplishments in the Oval Office were both long-reaching in their vision (the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and the passage of important civil rights legislation) and equally long-reaching in their lack of vision (his senseless escalation of the war in Vietnam).
The only question is: Is the LBJ movie we want and deserve an LBJ movie directed by Rob Reiner? Reiner has directed some of my favorite films during his career (This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery). But it’s been a long time since he’s made a movie that didn’t feel middle-of-the-road and toothless. The last film he made that felt urgent was Ghosts of Mississippi, and that was more than 20 years ago. That’s fine. Artists mellow. But the ground being covered in LBJ requires more than a nostalgic Baby Boomer gaze and a soaring hagiographic score. It begs for a point of view.
Reiner’s LBJ does have a point of view, but there’s nothing unexpected or surprising about it. The best thing the director has going for him is his star, Woody Harrelson. If you’ve seen Harrelson’s putty-covered face in the trailer, you might think I’ve lost my mind. And I agree that the actor’s mottled old-age make-up is distracting…at least for the first five minutes. Then something not unlike a magic trick happens. Like Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, what initially seems off-putting slowly fades away as the actor inhabits the role. Like Hopkins, Harrelson goes from jarring to uncanny. It’s a wonderful conjuring act.
Sadly, the rest of the movie lacks that same magic. Like Forrest Gump, it feels like the Monarch Notes version of the ‘60s, cutting back and forth from the fateful November day in Dallas in 1963 when LBJ was riding two cars behind JFK when shots rang out, to his ambitious, tense, love-hate relationship with the Kennedys (Jeffrey Donovan as Jack; Michael Stahl-David as Bobby). The theme bubbling underneath the surface of the film is that history was pulling at LBJ like a wishbone. On one side were the Southern good old boys whose coalition he counted on in congress but who are not-so-closeted racists dragging their heels on civil rights; on the other are progressives like the Kennedys who see the future but are moving too fast for many of the people who put them in power. LBJ is the heroic bareknuckle realist playing both sides against the middle. This may be too simplistic a take on Johnson, but it’s become the accepted one. Which makes sense. There’s nothing about the movie that isn’t the accepted version of anything.
If every line in Joey Hartstone’s script feels on the nose, Harrelson’s performance is the live wire that keeps the film chugging from one scene to the next (the movie does move). While Jennifer Jason Leigh gets lost behind a latex Lady Bird nose, pancake makeup, and a supporting-spouse role that doesn’t require much heavy lifting, Harrelson bellows and blusters with a rascal’s gleam in his eye. He dictates memos to his aides (including C. Thomas Howell…welcome back, sir!) while sitting on the toilet, instructs his tailor how to adjust his inseam for his generous endowment, and heckles the Lincoln Memorial (“This is your f—in’ mess I’m cleaning up”), all with the colorful witticisms of a profane Foghorn Leghorn. As a simplistic, slightly innocuous history lesson, LBJ is a perfectly solid single or possibly a ground-rule double. If you’re hoping for more than that, you may be as disappointed as hungry fox in abandoned hen house. B-