All The Way – HBO Presents Brian Cranston as LBJ

Politics is war. You’re not running for office.You’re running for your life.

Check out the newspaper front pages and headlines. I was around back then, but I wasn’t very interested in politics. Certainly the JFK assassination was meaningful and impactful. And like most of the country, over the next few days we were glued to our sofas as our eyes watched our black and white televisions as the events unfolded.

I guess I’m saying that once Johnson assumed the office, little by little, I lost interest in keeping on top of the news of politics.

Today, more than 50 years later, the impact of Johnson’s presidency, or as he described the circumstances in the HBO Films presentation All The Way which screened tonight – [I’m] the accidental president, that’s what they’ll say, can still be felt.

Johnson’s legacy can be debated – some call him one of the country’s worst Presidents) – included getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights bill signed into law, taking on the war on poverty by means of programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start that began under the umbrella term of The Great Society, and the continuation and escalation of the US involvement in Vietnam. All the Way with LBJ was Johnson’s campaign slogan in the 1964 Presidential Election Campaign. But Johnson would choose to not run for President in 1968.

All The Way is an adaption of Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning stage play also called All The Way. Brian Cranston stars in LBJ just as he did on Broadway in 2014. The film is directed by Jay Roach, and Steven Spielberg is an Executive Producer.

The supporting cast includes a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) as Senator Hubert Humphrey, Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King Jr, Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson, Todd Weeks as Johnson’s long-time Administrative Assistant Walter Jenkins, Steven Root as J.Edgar Hoover, and Frank Langella as Senator Richard Russell.

For the record, the film is just about a very short period of time – from JFK’s assassination in November 1963, to Johnson’s re-election to the presidency in November 1964. This is a walk through history and most of the names that you may have forgotten are portrayed in the film.

From Strom Thurmond to Robert McNamara, from Ralph Abernathy, Roy Wilkins, and Stokely Carmichael to Senator Everett Dirksen. From J.Edgar Hoover (portrayed creepily by Steven Root) to LBJ’s wife Lady Bird Johnson. Then we saw archival footage of Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Barry Goldwater, as well as Governor George Wallace. 

There was Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman. and James Chaney, the young civil rights workers who were murdered, on June 21st, 1964 near Philadelphia in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in this film as well. While these three young men were historical figures who should never be forgotten, in this film we learn nothing about them.

Their purpose in the film was to show how LBJ strong-armed the Mississippi Governor at that time, Paul Johnson, into agreeing that the having the FBI investigate the case was a whole lot better than having Mississippi overrun with Federal Marshals and the US Army. LBJ then told J.Edgar Hoover to get some of his men down to Mississippi, as Governor Johnson had asked for them. Hoover demurred stating that they had no warrants. LBJ said, That never stopped you before…

When Hoover still refused, LBJ played another card. Well okay, if you won’t do it, I’ll have Dulles and the CIA do it. Now that caught Hoover’s attention as he was never one to let some one else grab his headlines.

And that is just a microcosm of what this film is about. Johnson could and would have his way. He’d sweet talk you, or bully you. When LBJ put his hand on your shoulder you could never be sure if he was going to pat you on the back, twist your arm, or give you a strong kick in the ass. He was the master of the push-pull, or he could be a good old boy sharing a drink with you. He was a master at the in and outs of political bartering and political favors. He was a wheeler dealer in all things political, and he could convince any one to do his bidding most of the time.

He was also a nasty, foul-mouthed guy who cheated on his wife, a guy who belittled his pal Hubert Humphrey at nearly every opportunity, and a guy who walked away from his long-time assistant Walter Jenkins, who had the misfortune to get himself into a sex-scandal.

It was the old either you’re with me, or you’re against me kind of thing – and all of it performed by Brian Cranston in a role of a lifetime. As the film progressed there were countless times when I said to myself – Geez, that’s the real LBJ not an actor. Of course, my brain would then make a self-correction, but Cranston was LBJ in looks, style, demeanor and as was once said, he delivered a warts and all kind of performance.

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Basically Cranston as LBJ monopolized every scene he was in.

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Anthony Mackie was serviceable as MLK, but basically he didn’t deliver a standout, or unforgettable portrayal. Likely because he didn’t call MLK to mind physically.

Melissa Leo did look very much like Lady Bird Johnson but her role as written lacked some dramatic muscle.

I did like Bradley Whitford as HHHumphrey. He was a staunch Johnson man even when Johnson seemed to forget it.

Frank Langella was marvelous as the smooth as silk Senator Richard Russell who served as a father figure and mentor to LBJ in his early days in Washington.

But when push came to shove, when LBJ needed to get the Civil Rights bill out of committee in the House, and then on to the Senate floor. Russell left his good sense behind and defied LBJ. He would come up short. The interplay between the two of them was marvelous.

While this is a historical bio-pic and it really lacked suspense, or even dramatic highlights, it was an eminently watchable film. Strong acting performances carry you through this film that has little or no surprises. If you are of a certain age, and lived through this important part of America’s history, then I do urge you to see the film. If you are young enough, then watch the film to help you understand where we were as a nation back them.

Have a look at the trailer:

 

 

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3 thoughts on “All The Way – HBO Presents Brian Cranston as LBJ

  1. I cannot wait to see this, and your review just adds to that desire. It’s hard to imagine Frank Langella playing Russell, but I just looked at the trailer you added and he seems to have nailed him. I’m glad you mentioned Walter Jenkins — certainly someone LBJ left dangling. I read all of Robert Caro’s biographies on Johnson, but I’m going to try not to think about those details when I watch this film. Great review, thanks.

    • Thanks PB – we agree that as a piece of film making there wasn’t much to rave about. Probably played a lot different on stage – where sets, lighting, space etc were highly integral to the design of the play. When you open the story up cinematically with mock-ups of the Oval Office, Congress, the Johnson home in Texas, etc you are adding a level of ‘realism’ that cannot exist on a stage set. But this adds only visually, not necessarily dramatically.

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