Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.
Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone’s LBJ vividly brings back to older viewers the tumultuous events of the early 1960s. And for younger viewers it is, as President Wilson declared about another film, “like writing history in lightning.”
Using as its framework President Kennedy’s tragic visit to Dallas on November 22, 1963, the film inserts flashbacks to the months before the 1960 Democratic Convention when Senator Kennedy was campaigning to be the Presidential nominee and Senator Johnson was less openly jockeying for the nomination. As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson felt his long-time service to the Party made him far more deserving than the relative newcomer from Massachusetts to the Senate.
That Kennedy would win and invite his bitter rival Johnson to be his running mate surprised everyone, especially the candidate’s brother Bobby. The film goes into the details of why the calculating JFK decided upon this bold choice—and also as to why the man who held the 2nd most powerful post in Washington was willing to give up such power to accept the post that one Veep declared was not worth “a bucket of spit.”
Between shots of the Kennedys’ arriving at Love Field and the motorcade making its way through the streets of Dallas, large crowds cheering from the sidewalks, are scenes of Vice President Johnson seeking to expand the power of his office—he assures an aide, “Power is where power goes.” At the same time Bobby works to curtail his rival.
Following the shooting, Johnson and his aides wait in a separate room for word about the President. When they are told that he has died, it takes a moment for the Vice President to realize what this means. Also for his aides, the camera lingering on him and several of them. The shock quickly wearing off, Johnson immediately begins issuing orders to one and all, deciding to return with the dead Kennedy’s body to Washington, talking with Bobby on the phone, and over the latter’s reluctance, deciding to take the oath of office before returning to the capital.
The later scenes all focus on Johnson’s intent to get Kennedy’s proposed Civil Rights Bill through Congress despite the strong resistance of the Southern block led by the racist Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. At first the staff of the former candidate debate about staying on in an administration headed by the man they had considered a vulgar Southerner, unsympathetic to Jack’s values. Most decided to swallow their scruples, but when he tells them he intends to see that the bill they had thought dead would become law, they ask if he really believes in it.
The staff’s challenge sets up what for me is the most touchingly dramatic scene of the film. Earlier we had caught brief glimpses of Mrs. Wright, the long-time servant of the Johnsons. Johnson tells the staff that back in Texas he had asked her if she would bring with her his little dog when she drives to Washington. She said “No,” he reveals, pointing out that bringing a pet along would make an already difficult trip all the more so. As a “Negro” she cannot eat at most restaurants, he says, cannot stop for a drink or rest, cannot stay overnight at motels. Speaking of her character and his hope for her future, Johnson reveals that the Civil Rights Bill is a very personal affair for him.
Also dramatic are scenes between the President and Senator Russell, the former at first trying to deal diplomatically with their differences before they openly break over the issue. At one point he bluntly tells Russell that he is a racist and that the South must change. The Senator warns that he will fight back hard against his former friend and ally.
The strong cast brings to life the pivotal events in Johnson’s life from 1960 and 1964. Woody Harrelson, despite the inept make-up job that detracts, justly deserves the critics’ plaudits for his strong performance of a strong man, so there should be no surprise if next month there is Oscar talk associated with his name. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s part of Lady Bird is very much underwritten, but in one scene in which she comforts and inspires a discouraged husband to keep fighting, she shines. Jeffrey Donovan, as President Kennedy, is in just a few brief scenes, but is effective. Michael Stahl-David as Bobby Kennedy well displays the latter’s disdain for Johnson. The excellent character actor Richard Jenkins handles convincingly the thankless role of the racist Senator Richard Russell, leader of the unyielding block of Southerners who had, up until 1964, effectively blocked legislation designed to help African Americans. Margo Moorer’s is a cameo role as Johnson’s servant Mrs. Wright, but it is nonetheless an important one, underlying as it does Johnson’s monologue about his sincerity in backing the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. The film ably shows a Southerner who has come a long way in dealing with the way “Negroes” were treated. His vulgarity is also on display in several scenes, so the film is not a hagiography.
Many have criticized the film for dealing only with Johnson and Civil Rights, omitting the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty entirely. Given the title, I would agree, but a subtitle such as “The First year” would rectify this. I believe the filmmakers were doing what the makers of Lincoln did, zeroing in on one issue that consumed the President, in the latter’s case, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (In my review of that film I suggested that a better title would have been “The 13th Amendment.”) There is mention of the Vietnam War, but just in passing. I hope that a future producer will make a film fully justifying the inclusive title LBJ, but hope it will be a TV miniseries, for Johnson’s story is too long and complicated to tell in just two hours. I remember being so upset with him when in 1964 he did all he could to block at the Democratic National Convention the seating of the integrated Mississippi delegation because of fear of a walkout by the other racist Southern delegates, and yet followed the next year by glowing admiration for him when he concluded his televised Civil Rights address with, “And we shall overcome.” Thus I have always had mixed feelings about this complex man. I would hope such an LBJ—and wouldn’t it be wonderful if Woody Harrelson were again chosen to portray him? —would be shown as the tragic figure he was, flawed, yet supportive of the prophet’s zeal for justice for the poor (hence his Anti-Poverty War), but trapped by an inherited war that grew to such size that it sidetracked his social justice agenda.
For those concerned for social justice, as well as history, this is a “must see” film.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the December issue of Visual Parables.