LBJ takes us back to a time before America was Great Again. It's a heartfelt journey.
It goes back to a time where experience and knowledge were crucial. What a concept. And a time when Ted Sorensen's speech writing was articulate and multisyllabic. Again, what a concept.
There's a lot of baggage to the myth and reality of Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was crude, and fruitlessly and fatally escalated the Vietnam War.
But the film LBJ focuses on the man who was a cagy politician and an irrepressible force of nature.
LBJ tells the story of the time Lyndon Johnson was competing with the Kennedys before Kennedy was elected president, JFK's assassination, and Johnson's taking office. In the wake of the assassination, it was Lyndon Johnson's political prowess and forceful commitment, despite severe opposition, that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Woody Harrelson gives a flamboyant and engaging performance as Lyndon Johnson. At first we may recognize Woody's voice, but he quickly disappears completely into his compelling character. Woody wears a lot of make-up, but he digs beyond it to the soul of the man. With great aplomb, Harrelson raises the movie far beyond mere formula.
The rest of the cast is more than serviceable. Jennifer Jason Leigh portrays the supportive Lady Bird. Jeffrey Donovan is the amiable, thoughtful John F. Kennedy, and Michael Stahl-David is his brother Bobby, who in his relations with Lyndon has a touch of callowness. Richard Jenkins is effective as powerful Georgia senator Richard Russell, Jr., who becomes a major Southern antagonist of Lyndon's idealism.
But Harrelson drives the film with his soaring and diving performance.
Screenwriter Joey Hartstone gives Harrelson several lines that are funny and revealing. One line that still reverberates today is when Lyndon says, "Power is where power goes."
Rob Reiner directs with an emphasis on entertainment, sometimes amusing, sometimes emotional. However, his choice of ending with Lyndon's speech to Congress is somewhat anti-climactic. It dissipates some of the film's power.
Some reviewers have complained that Reiner avoids the Vietnam decision and the dark, edgy side of Lyndon's experience.
Reiner does show Robert McNamara leaving papers with Lyndon, and there is a symbolic shot of the Eternal Flame in front of a graveyard of crosses. But essentially Reiner is showing a man accomplishing something worthy.
In some significant ways, LBJ is reminiscent of last year's Hidden Figures. LBJ is spirited, humanized, and simplified. If it softens some of the ugliness that's ok. There's plenty of ugliness to go around today.
LBJ is a glass half-full of Texas moonshine.
Last year, an audience found Hidden Figures.
I hope this year they find LBJ.