LBJ is a film that is wholly unnecessary because it’s already been done by way of the 2016 HBO movie, All the Way, starring Bryan Cranston. Woody Harrelson’s performance as Lyndon Johnson is strong, but there’s no way around comparing the two. It has been well over a year since the premiere of director Rob Reiner’s film at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival but it’s just as well that the film was held until late 2017 given last fall’s Jackie.
Lady Bird Johnson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is by LBJ’s side when he learns the sad news that President John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) has died. Even as the film focuses so much on the dynamic between Johnson and the Kennedy family, the First Lady isn’t an afterthought.
The film does touch on the 1960 election, where Johnson accepts Kennedy’s offer to be the Vice President because he believes he can bring power into the office. He doesn’t given that Kennedy has him on a leash.
Some of the best comedic moments in the film come in the conversations that take place between Johnson and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) or Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins). Just as with Harrelson’s performance, one cannot help but inevitably compare their performances with those who portrayed them in earlier films. Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman) adds an interesting dynamic to the film because he’s a Texan for Kennedy but later saves Johnson’s butt in the United States Senate when asked to support and pass the Civil Rights Act.
Cinematographer Barry Markowitz, production designer Christopher R. DeMuri, and costume designer Dan Moore do a solid job at helping recreate the 1960s. The acting, while impressive, just isn’t enough to save the biopic based on Joey Hartstone’s script no matter how funny it gets.
The somber moments hit hard with the added effect from Marc Shaiman’s score. The score also makes LBJ’s joint congressional speech hit with an impact even though the speech is still so fresh in our memory. The speech is powerful and makes for an Oscar-esque performance. There are quite a few scenes that could be described as such but when all is said and done but it’s missing that extra sense of electricity to make it memorable.
LBJ is condensed to a mere 96 minutes and, due to this, is rushed. The former goes from the Kennedy assassination through the 1964 election while the latter climaxes with President Johnson’s joint session while urging the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but it also touches on the 1960 election and how Johnson came to be the Vice President. The discussion on the Civil Rights bill feels redundant but it’s just as important now as it was back in the mid-1960s.