LBJ

lbj-rev LBJ  (2017)    Electric Entertainment/Drama    RT: 97 minutes    Rated R (language)    Director: Rob Reiner    Screenplay: Joey Hartstone    Music: Marc Shaiman    Cinematography: Barry Markowitz    Release date: November 3, 2017 (US)    Cast: Woody Harrelson, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, Jeffrey Donovan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, C. Thomas Howell, Rich Sommer, Travis Wester, Doug McKeon, Michael Mosley, Wallace Langham, Judd Lormand, Gary Grubbs, Joe Chrest, Brian Stepanek.

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 Rob Reiner’s career never fully recovered from the travesty that was 1994’s North. It still ranks as one of the worst films ever made by a respected director. In the beginning, it seemed like Reiner could do no wrong. He turned out hit after hit- This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men. In the years after North, Reiner made only two movies that were any good, the rom-com The American President and the little-seen period coming-of-age comedy Flipped. The rest- Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story of Us, Alex & Emma, Rumor Has It, The Magic of Belle Isle, And So It Goes and Being Charlie- are a series of critical and commercial failures. The sole exception is 2007’s The Bucket List which I didn’t think was all that good. If any filmmaker’s career needs a jump-start, it’s Reiner’s.

lbj I seriously doubt the Presidential biopic LBJ will make the kind of money his early films did but in terms of quality, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s Reiner’s best work in years. It’s a gripping account of Lyndon B. Johnson and his journey to the Oval Office. Woody Harrelson (The People vs. Larry Flynt) portrays Johnson, the Texas-born politician who served as Vice President to John F. Kennedy (Donovan, Burn Notice) until that fateful day in Dallas. For the first hour or so, LBJ shifts back and forth between the day of the JFK assassination (November 22, 1963) and the years preceding the fall of Camelot. Prior to being VP, Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader, a position that imbues its holder with a great deal of power. Johnson was a born leader with a knack for wheeling and dealing. After an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in the 1960 Presidential election, JFK names LBJ as his running mate. Reiner’s takes us through Johnson’ years as VP, a tumultuous time marked by disrespect, marginalization and snubbing by the other members of JFK’s cabinet especially his brother Robert (David, Cloverfield).

 At the same time, LBJ recounts the events of November 22 from JFK’s landing at Love Field to LBJ’s swearing-in on Air Force One. At this point, LBJ follows a more traditional narrative. This is where it runs into trouble. I wouldn’t exactly say Reiner drops the ball; it’s more of a fumble. The first big thing Johnson does as Commander-in-Chief is push for the passage of a Civil Rights bill. This would have for compelling drama especially with the opposition he faces from Senator Richard Russell (Jenkins, The Visitor), the extremely conservative Southern caucus leader. Instead, Reiner ends it with Johnson’s speech announcing his intention to introduce it. Why not follow through to the day the Civil Rights Act becomes law? The whole third act feels rather rushed. There’s a lot more to Johnson’s legacy- e.g. Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid- but it all gets relegated to end titles. It prevents LBJ from being a great film.

 Reiner’s film is still very good and that’s mainly due to solid performances from a great cast. Harrelson may not seem the most likely choice to play our 36th President. He doesn’t resemble him physically (hence, the use of prosthetics and heavy makeup) but he does give us an accurate psychological portrayal by depicting Johnson as a man plagued by insecurity and low self-worth. He just wants everybody to like him and it kills him that JFK’s inner circle constantly snubs him. Bobby, depicted as a real brat, treats him with outright contempt. My mom always said that Johnson died of a broken heart. Watching LBJ, I think she may have been right.

 Equally good is Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) as his supportive wife Lady Bird. She’s the steady rock in his stormy relationship with White House politics. Nothing fazes this lady. Jenkins is great as Senator Russell, a fellow Southerner and one-time drinking buddy of LBJ until the whole Civil Rights thing. He’s vehemently opposed while Johnson sees it as inevitable change. One of the movie’s best scenes is when Johnson explains to JFK how he understands both sides of the issue. He can see both the Northern and Southern positions on Civil Right, he “speaks both languages”. I’ll say this for LBJ; it’s consistently interesting. Not only is it a good history lesson, it’s also a fascinating portrait of the President not so much remembered for the good he did but for escalating the war in Vietnam. This is also mentioned in the end titles. Had Reiner expanded the focus of LBJ to include the triumphs and tragedies of his Presidency, he would have had something truly exceptional. It might have even restored his place in the top directors list. But like I said, LBJ is a step in the right direction. Nice going, Meathead! 

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