By Jim Tortolano
Lyndon Baines Johnson is getting rehabbed a mere 44 years after his death. Three movies have been done recently in which LBJ has been depicted as a rough-hewn but good-hearted advocate of civil rights and other good causes.
The latest, “LBJ,” is – unfortunately – the weakest of the three. Starring Woody Harrelson as the “accidental president” from Texas, this version by Rob Reiner (from a screenplay by Joey Hartstone) lacks much in the way of true drama, character development or empathy.
Tom Wilkinson, who played Johnson in “Selma,” didn’t look much like the former president, but carried the role well. Bryan Cranston, in the HBO film “All the Way,” nails the role, ably assisted by a script that shines revealing light into why Johnson was the man he became: coarse, manipulative but ultimately on the side of the disadvantaged. Just as with Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” when you looked at Cranton, you “saw” Johnson.
But in “LBJ,” when you looked at Harrelson, you saw Harrelson playing Johnson (with bad makeup). One half expected the crew from “Cheers” to show up as Cabinet members.
For a film which concentrates primarily on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there’s precious little about the complex political maneuvering that required its passage over the fierce opposition of conservative Southern Democrats.
Additionally, the chief beneficiaries of the new law – black Americans – are almost totally absent in this film. We don’t see or hear from Martin Luther King or any other black leader, and see nothing of the tug-of-war between them over the content of the bill.
Jeff Donovan is John Kennedy, and while he looks less like the real JFK than Harrelson did as LBJ, he does a creditable job with the accent and mannerisms. Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) is just a sneering little snipe in this version, suggesting that he might be more upset at Johnson’s unpolished ways – definitely not from “Harrrr-vard’ – than his politics.
Only Jennifer Jason Lee as Lady Bird feels authentic and she has few lines.
Some critics have groused about how the film left out almost all references to the escalation of the war in Vietnam. That seems to be a political objection rather than a question of film-making. This isn’t a complete biography but rather a focus on a transformative place and time.
The weakness of “LBJ” is not it lacks any scenes of student demonstrations or grunts slogging warily through jungles. What it lacks is a sense of authenticity and depth that could have made this supremely complex man a lot more interesting.
“LBJ” is rated R for language.
Categories: Arts & Leisure