Opting to cover the years in which late president Lyndon B. Johnson was most closely affiliated with John F. Kennedy, this Rob Reiner-directed biopic is actually a quick and fairly interesting take on history and the man who had to alienate himself from those who put him in power in order to do the right thing. From a failed run for president in 1960, to being forced to take that same office in 1963 when JFK was assassinated, to pushing through many of Kennedy’s most sweeping Civil Rights policies, LBJ gives us an often fascinating glimpse into how many perceived this man from West Texas and the ways he thought he could be most useful to the Kennedy administration.
Woody Harrelson (barely recognizable under some impressive makeup) plays LBJ, once the most powerful man in the Senate, who agrees to become vice president at Kennedy’s request, even though none of JFK’s advisors (including brother Robert) wanted Johnson on board. Although many saw Johnson being offering the job as a type of neutering of his power, Johnson believed the position was as powerful as the man who had it.
Written by Joey Hartstone, the film is loaded with Johnson spinning folksy yarns that help to illustrate his points and positions, as he plays up his Southern charm with his former colleagues in Congress (represented by a particularly racist Democratic senator, Richard Russell, played perfectly by Richard Jenkins). But Johnson also knew how to speak to the Ivy League sect in the White House. As he liked to put it, he was fluent in both languages.
Johnson saw himself as a bridger of gaps, but he also wanted to be perceived as someone with actual power and the ear of the president—tough to do with now-Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) also by his brother’s side. Jeffrey Donovan plays President Kennedy, one of the few who saw the true value of Johnson being a part of the administration, and while we don’t get any representative scenes of the two in action, it becomes clear later in the film that Johnson admired the hell out of his boss.
LBJ faithfully re-creates the Kennedy assassination (Johnson was only a couple of cars behind the president when he was shot) and the immediate events that followed it, making it clear that Johnson was unsure exactly when to let the news of Kennedy’s death be released in relation to when he flew back to D.C. to assume the office. A fascinating drama unfolds about when Johnson should actually take the oath of office. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Lady Bird Johnson, and much like the real-life person, it’s a largely thankless role. But she manages to find a few moments in which to shine as Johnson’s most stabilizing force.
Some of the most interesting material in the film takes place after Johnson takes office and makes the calculated decision to back Kennedy’s most ambitious policies regarding Civil Rights, despite the Southern political leadership practically doing cartwheels when he took the oath, thinking Johnson was finally going to put a stop to such “nonsense.”
One of the film’s more interesting choices is to make Democratic senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas (Bill Pullman) a touchstone for Johnson’s popularity and influence. When we first meet him, Johnson is still a senator, attempting to push through a bill and convince Yarborough (unsuccessfully) to join his cause. Throughout the film, Johnson and Yarborough (a major Kennedy supporter) meet, and we get a sense as to the political temperature through the years. It just so happens that Yarborough was in the same car as Johnson when Kennedy was killed.
LBJ is a fairly straight-forward learning experience. There isn’t much here that isn’t documented in other stories about Johnson or just in history books, but bringing it all together like this makes sense. As good as Harrelson is here, there’s still a necessary spark missing from the entire film, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why that is. Perhaps in light of the recent HBO Johnson biopic All the Way, with Bryan Cranston, based on the Broadway play that focuses mostly on the first year of his presidency and the passing of the Civil Rights Act, this version of events feels tame or unnecessary.
But there’s certainly enough to like here to warrant both films. If for no other reason, the changing dynamic of the relationship between Johnson and Russell makes the movie worth checking out; their relationship over the decades could have made for its own film. Not great, not terrible, but not entirely necessary.