“LBJ” — 3 stars — Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bill Pullman, Zack Carter, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins; R (language); in general release
Rob Reiner’s “LBJ” is a unique portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who led the United States through the heart of the 1960s, bridging the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
We first meet Johnson (Woody Harrelson) in the late 1950s, while serving as the Senate majority leader and still hoping to reach the White House. He’s brash, foul-mouthed and vulgar, the kind of guy who does his business with the bathroom door open so he can keep the conversation rolling with his lackeys in the next room.
“LBJ” takes us through the journey that led Johnson from White House hopeful to John F. Kennedy’s vice president, all while alternating with scenes from the day in Dallas that would finally usher him into the Oval Office. Along the way, Reiner paints a curious portrait of a president who tends to be overshadowed by the legacies of the executives who came before and after him.
Part of that may come from his sensitive ego, articulated early in the film by his wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains why Johnson has hesitated to throw his own name in the presidential race: “He’s afraid people won’t love him.” For all of his larger-than-life Texas personality, Harrelson portrays Johnson as a man whose tough exterior belies a pensive insecurity under the surface.
This insecurity frequently emerges through his interactions with other politicians. At one point, he’s talking down to Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman), berating his idealistic platitudes. Later, he’s marginalized by President Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and his brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David), who treat him as if he’s there solely to keep the other Southern Democrats in line. Johnson’s relationship with Bobby is especially compelling, given the other Kennedy’s own White House aspirations, and of course things just get that more complicated after JFK is killed in Dallas.
But the narrative heart of Reiner’s biopic is the journey Johnson takes to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which is mostly treated as a task of political prudence rather than moral expediency. Early on, Johnson fights with Senator Russell (Richard Jenkins), who leads the Democratic resistance to civil rights legislation, and in one memorable moment, Johnson declares (with blunt language that won’t be repeated here) that the Civil Rights Act will keep black Americans voting Democrat for the next 200 years. But later, Johnson seems to come around to a more noble perspective.
Working behind some heavy makeup, Harrelson is a convincing figure of the former president, portraying a man who is both bungling and comical, out of step with the younger politicians around him, yet well-prepared to take charge when necessary, such as in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination.
A film like this, especially in our current national climate, is bound to elicit mixed political reactions as far as personal interpretation and the re-creation of history goes, even though, curiously, the Republican Party doesn’t have much of a role to play in the film (the film leaves Vietnam for its closing titles, for example). But as a thoughtful examination of the strengths and merits of a lesser-known public figure, and a lesson in the committed portrayal of such a figure, “LBJ” should merit consideration from both sides of the aisle.
“LBJ” is rated R for language; running time: 98 minutes.