If Rob Reiner’s characterization of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973) in LBJ is cartoonish, or his storied transformation in the movie from Southern Democrat to civil rights visionary does not ring true, the fault lies in the screenplay. In place of the puissant legislator who helped JFK win the White House in 1960 is Reiner’s LBJ, played by Woody Harrelson, a pouting, sneering, calculating pretender to the throne, a crass guy who conducts staff meetings from the potty.
The movie begins in 1959, with a caricature of LBJ, a member of the Southern Caucus and Senate Majority Leader, running for his party’s presidential nomination. It then moves swiftly to LBJ’s loss, and winner John F. Kennedy’s (Jeffrey Donovan) request that he become his running mate on the Democratic ticket. LBJ’s hesitation to accept that invitation is aggravated by his longstanding, contentious relationship with Robert F. Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David). Against his brother’s wishes, RFK tries to talk LBJ out of the VP spot. Their dogfight, which lasts the entire movie, even into the final sequences of LBJ’s move to the White House, is a leitmotif for the white male universe of this flawed biography.
In the opening scene, the Texas senator calls his tailor to order pants, adding that he needs extra room in the crotch. He then threatens to emasculate a male aide for not being specific about a vote count. While LBJ was known as the “greatest vote counter,” according to biographer Robert Caro, and that aspect of his reputation is appropriate to the scene, his anger is explosive and menacing—so hyperbolic as to feel off-key. Reiner’s direction, which often confuses bellicosity and crude language for a display of power, is rivaled only by screenwriter Joey Hartstone’s tin ear for dialogue. The scene would work if LBJ and the aide were in a sports bar, and that may be what LBJ aims for; this testosterone-fueled film is also notable for the absence of women and children.
Even the youngest baby boomers will recall that First Lady Jackie Kennedy was the closest the modern White House ever came to housing Old World European refinement. Her redecoration of the family rooms and the Oval Office inspired more TV specials than the Cuban Missile Crisis. Photographs of Caroline and “John-John” playing in the Oval Office with their father charmed the nation. Later, news coverage shifted to the “Birds,” Lady, Lynda and Lucy Johnson, who represented America’s first glimpse of Southern Belles in the White House. In LBJ, Jackie (Kim Allen) makes the briefest of appearances, so that Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the sole female in the movie. One would never guess from her conversations with LBJ, which consist of brainless one-liners out of a self-help book, that this is the woman whose investments made the couple millionaires, and the “lady” who stumped for the passage of her husband’s Civil Rights legislation in the Jim Crow South.
Reiner’s claustrophobic white, male world in LBJ is also never interrupted by African-American civil rights activists whose Freedom Rides tested the Kennedy Administration’s professed commitment to the movement in 1961. Actually, the first civil rights legislation signed into law since 1875 was a bill passed in 1957, during the Eisenhower Administration; LBJ got it through the Senate where previous bills had always stalled. After Kennedy’s assassination, black leaders immediately began pressuring LBJ, knowing that he was the only man who could confront his segregationist mentor, Richard Russell, Jr. (Frank Jenkins) and the Southern Caucus, in order to repeat that victory. Yet when LBJ depicts the November 1963 assassination, and the vice-president awaiting news on JFK’s condition at Parkland Hospital, or in the next sequence, his December move to the White House, Reiner’s portrait is of a man driven solely by unmasked ambition.
LBJ chronicles only the legendary politician’s nascent transformation to social consciousness, eliding the great deeds and the infamy, which proves a risky proposition. To achieve more than a hackneyed representation of inner growth, that is, LBJ’s transition from racist Southern Democrat to his reversal in 1957, and his three landmark Civil Rights bills between 1964 and 1968, requires not just a great screenplay, but an actor whose presence matches that of this towering figure in American politics. LBJ was nearly 6' 4", and a man of considerable intellect and compassion. Woody Harrelson is woefully miscast, and not just because he bears no physical resemblance to his character. He fails to summon this complicated man onscreen.
Harrelson’s performance will inevitably be compared to Bryan Cranston’s in Jay Roach’s TV movie, All the Way (2016), which covers the same ground. Cranston looks like LBJ, and he is certainly a more well-drawn character, adapted from Robert Frederic Schenkkan, Jr.’s Tony-award winning play “LBJ.” Jenkins as Senator Russell will be found wanting as well by those who saw Frank Langella in the same role in All the Way. As for Jennifer Jason Leigh, she is a wonderful actress in a thankless role. Jeffrey Donovan, who plays JFK, gets the accent right, and he has the thoughtful demeanor of the late president; while his is the best performance in LBJ, Donovan nevertheless seems small in stature in comparison to his real-life counterpart. Michael Stahl-David’s RFK is memorable only for his vitriolic delivery. Most of the other members of the cast are primarily TV actors, a reason that LBJ appears more fitted to the small screen.
Screenwriter Joey Hartstone is a white man too young to have any living memory of President Johnson. His vision of politics as the proverbial smoke-filled room is a male myth, both dull and inaccurate, that is used to writing women out of history. It was not the skirmishes between Russell and LBJ, or LBJ and RFK, which describes Hartstone’s screenplay in a nutshell, that led to LBJ’s crisis of conscience and his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. Like Kennedy before him, he was compelled by civil rights leaders who, he admitted in his final interview with Walter Cronkite in 1973, educated him to the many inequities suffered by African-Americans.
LBJ arrived at the White House in December 1963 as the first president in nearly a century from a state aligned with the Jim Crow South. Plans were already underway for the 1964 voter registration drive in Mississippi, now known as “Freedom Summer.” It had hardly begun when three men who were there for that event, Northerners Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and Mississippi-born James Chaney, disappeared, and like the Freedom Ride bus burning in Anniston in 1961, their story became front-page news. LBJ pushed the first of his three civil rights bills through Congress and the Senate in July, even before the discovery of their bodies. Absent in LBJ is the man who would go on to profoundly alter the lives of ordinary Americans through his vision of a “Great Society”—and a president who would not run for a second term because in 1968, he was abroken man, having escalated a war that claimed millions of lives, over 200,000 of them Americans, and a disproportionate number of them African-Americans.