Lyndon Baines Johnson entered the White House as one of the most accomplished politicians in U.S. history. And as president, his vision of a Great Society led to the country’s most ambitious liberal political reforms since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, revolutionizing social security, the war on poverty, and immigration policies. Johnson also steered the nation during its confrontation with the communist bloc at the height of the Cold War, including the worst years of the Vietnam conflict. That Rob Reiner’s LBJ chooses to focus primarily on Johnson’s work on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a reflection of America’s current political climate and the artistic and political conformity that holds sway in Hollywood. By pairing down Johnson’s multifarious life and career to this one piece of legislation, the film fails to do justice to both the man and the fraught times he so fundamentally influenced.
Johnson only becomes president two-thirds of the way through the film. Until that point, Reiner focuses on the man’s tenure as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, offering up a kind of conversion story, with L.B.J. as the St. Paul to J.F.K.’s Jesus; just as St. Paul did a lot of the leg work of spreading Christianity after Christ’s death, the film reminds us that Johnson did most of the heavy lifting on civil rights legislation in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination. The final result is a neutered portrait of L.B.J. himself in service of a fairly conventional and bland depiction of one moment in the creation of a law whose monumental prologue and epilogue are merely hinted at. The topical and transitory nature of the film means that viewers will have to look elsewhere to understand the full scope of L.B.J.’s life and legacy.
Johnson was a promethean figure in the American political landscape of his time, a swaggering Texan known for browbeating opponents and allies alike and using his phallus (which he refers to as “Jumbo” in the film) as a diplomatic tool. LBJ is most confident when showing the president, played in appropriately over-the-top fashion by Woody Harrelson, engaging in congressional horse-trading and giving his interlocutors what Johnson historians call “the treatment,” an interrogatory mix of cajoling and intimidation that the president used to convince people to give him what he wanted. Harrelson, beneath prosthetic jowls and inches of makeup, captures L.B.J.’s garrulous tongue and Texas-sized chutzpah with aplomb. And Jennifer Jason Leigh, almost unrecognizable as Lady Bird Johnson, matches Harrelson stride for stride, fully and theatrically embodying the first lady.
At its best, LBJ successfully conveys the complexity of the legislative process as it observes the goings-on inside government committees and behind-the-scenes political meetings. But the film’s primary and secondary characters generally see all their strengths and weaknesses neatly rendered by Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone. Except, that is, for golden-boy J.F.K. (Jeffrey Donovan). The filmmakers don’t have it in them to show any of Kennedy’s wrinkles or warts, because if they did then the film would have had to wrestle with the complexities of how Johnson actually dealt with his second-banana role. Here we simply get a larger-than-life politician wallowing in his self-pity as part of a political midlife crisis, which only further serves to diminish him in comparison to the always effervescent, ever-smiling Kennedy.
The film’s biggest problem, though, is its conspicuous search for an antagonist with an outsized persona to rival that of Johnson’s. Though they’re the source of Johnson’s seeming emasculation, John and Robert F. Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) are too aloof and otherworldly in their charm for them to be considered villains. Eventually, the filmmakers decide on Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), a leading congressional opponent of civil rights and Johnson’s former mentor, as their story’s heavy. Unfortunately, Johnson and Russell’s father-son dynamic is insufficiently developed—too vaguely defined to generate any significant tension. In the end, you may care to commend Reiner for avoiding the clichéd moments of cheering crowds and overcoming adversity that pockmark too many biopics. But the film ends up steering too far in the opposite direction, holding its cards too close to the vest, and the result is a staid, lugubrious affair that fails to do justice to L.B.J.’s Herculean political career and enormous personal charisma.