Rob Reiner’s LBJ bears no resemblance to Oliver Stone’s JFK. This is a biopic covering only 1960-65, which was both a good and bad decision by the director of The American President and A Few Good Men.
LBJ (Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, Michael Stahl-David) – Lyndon Johnson, the accidental president, towered over the Senate and later cowered late in his presidency. His Great Society program stands as his greatest achievement, having shepherded Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and numerous social programs. Vietnam resulted in his undoing. But Rob Reiner’s LBJ, the movie, doesn’t take us that far, choosing to focus exclusively on the period between the 1960 presidential campaign and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.
Woody Harrelson, perhaps the unlikeliest of Johnson impersonators, is actually exceptional as LBJ. He manages to captures the dialect, the cadence, and the gestures of the tall, powerful Texan. Harrelson’s LBJ is earthy yet savvy; confident yet vulnerable; and ambitious yet insecure. There is a Trump-like quality to LBJ in that he is more interested in the deal than the policy. This son of the Confederate South, always agnostic on Civil Rights in his Senate days, becomes the champion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 following Kennedy’s murder.
Johnson appears genuinely devastated by JFK’s death and committed to the fallen president’s agenda. He chooses to oppose his sponsor, mentor and colleague, Georgia Senator Richard Russell, to get the bill passed because it was Kennedy’s signature domestic goal.
This very sympathetic glimpse into Johnson portrays him as closer to Jack Kennedy than most other accounts. It also captures the pure animosity that Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) had for Johnson, culminating in a scene shortly after the assassination where Johnson asks Bobby why he doesn’t like him. “Your brother likes me. Why don’t you?” It is this insecurity that drives the film if not the real man. The best scenes are between Harrelson and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) as Lady Bird as well as those with Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) as Russell.
Reiner chooses wisely to start the film during the week of the Kennedy assassination, then flashes backwards and forwards to create an energy that the recent Mark Felt/Deep Throat film did not. But it does falter by hustling us through the 1960 Democratic election run-up and the early years of Camelot. It then bogs down a bit in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. It then runs out of time before getting to Johnson’s real achievements and ultimate decision not to run again in 1968.
In this sense, the TV movie, All The Way, starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, was superior. But Reiner’s film is more a character study than the end of the age of innocence in America. It could have used more of the latter. On its own, it is a fine portrait of American’s 36th president over a five-year span. And Harrelson was a surprisingly good vehicle to give us some insight into this larger-than-life man.