Film Review: LBJ

This biopic based upon a chunk of the life of America’s 36th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is an odd, stilted affair with a curiously distanced feel.

That distance demonstrates one of the film’s biggest problems: neither director/producer Rob Reiner nor star Woody Harrelson like LBJ in the slightest. Both Harrelson and Reiner later said their distaste for LBJ was because of his pro-Vietnam stance. So why make a movie about him then? Good question.

Although Woody (before he was in War For The Planet Of The Apes, Three Billboards…, Solo: A Star Wars Story and several others) is actually about the same age as LBJ was during the years depicted here, he nevertheless sat for hours in the make-up chair and wore prosthetics to make his lean gob look more like the jowly Johnson’s, and all it really does is make him look weirdly rubbery.

Oddly focussing more upon Johnson’s Vice Presidency than his actual Presidency, this opens with LBJ, his wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and, of course, John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and his wife Jackie (Kim Allen) in Dallas on November 22 1963. We know the assassination is coming, yet there isn’t much tension (as there was in Jackie, where LBJ was impressively played by the less chameleonic John Carroll Lynch) and the sequence looks a little cheap, with sparse crowds and, briefly, a reflection of the camera crew in one of the cars.

We bounce backwards and forwards from this fateful day as Joey Hartstone’s script continues, and early on there’s an implication that LBJ was pretty jealous of the more popular JFK and secretly rued the fact that he only became President by dreadful default because Kennedy was killed. Later LBJ is also seen having it out with Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David not really looking much like the real guy), who refuses to like him, in sequences that have been stripped of their dirtier excesses. Here you wonder again why anyone would bother making a movie about Johnson if he couldn’t be depicted in all his foul-mouthed glory.

Stronger in tone are the scenes where Johnson is becoming more dedicated to civil rights causes and must tangle with nasty Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins playing against type). The two of them have dinners and meetings where Russell details his horror at the notion of allowing black people any kind of equality in the South, and that’s the way God would want it too. Harrelson’s LBJ sits there looking quietly appalled.

Made at a time when LBJ has featured in several films, this is handled by director Rob Reiner with creaky earnestness, and Harrelson is strained, especially when he tries to be awkwardly funny. Why do it at all? The final act shows that LBJ did great things in the realms of social justice, and this sings his praises in the standard final credit crawl too, before noting that, yes indeed, his belief in the Vietnam War was his undoing. All the way, you might say.

Rated M. LBJ is in cinemas now.

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