Those unfamiliar with Lyndon Baines Johnson before watching LBJ might think he belongs on Mount Rushmore.
This modestly intriguing cinematic portrait of the tall Texan who became the 36th president of the United States doesn’t always provide an even-handed perspective, preferring to focus on the Democrat’s early political successes while ignoring his later failures.
That might be expected of director Rob Reiner, an outspoken political lefty. But the film benefits from a committed portrayal of by Woody Harrelson, wearing a prosthetic nose, who brings depth and complexity to LBJ in more than just quirks and mannerisms.
The film is not a comprehensive biopic, focusing primarily on two segments of his career — his role as a behind-the-scenes negotiator for the Civil Rights Act, and his volatile working relationship with the Kennedys.
Of course, he started as a Kennedy rival, losing the 1960 primary to John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) before securing a vice presidential slot, much to the chagrin of Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), whose trust he never earns.
After JFK’s assassination in 1963, LBJ latches on to the Civil Rights Act as his method of following through on his predecessor’s agenda. He also views it as a path to a seamless transition, and a signature accomplishment that would help him in the 1964 election. But passage of the bill requires that LBJ mend relationships with his former Southern Democrat colleagues in Congress, including Georgian Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) and fellow Texan Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman).
The screenplay takes a few historical liberties and doesn’t delve much into LBJ’s personal life, virtually ignoring his wife, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Yet the film pays tribute to its subject’s tenacity and his ability to maneuver and compromise as a consummate politician.
He’s ornery and stubborn, and not an easy target for sympathy. As he tells staffers in one scene: “Never underestimate the intensity of a martyr’s cause or the size of a Texan’s balls.”
Too often, the film feels content to play the highlights rather than provide deeper insight. And its choppy re-creation of the fateful events in Dealey Plaza pales in comparison to other projects.
Yet those are minor quibbles with Reiner’s consistently compelling history lesson, which puts the spotlight on a man forced to navigate the country through one of the most pivotal periods of the last century — even if it cries out for a less flattering sequel.