Why the near-wholesale absence from blogging? Where have I been? A changing world demands changes of me, too, it seems, changes I can barely describe, and far beyond the scope of this blog, this post in particular. The same can be said – in spades – of those chosen by whatever device to the leadership of nations.
Times and the events that create them either season the men and women involved in them – or they destroy them. Such can be said of Lyndon Baines Johnson, LBJ, 36th president of these United States, who ascended to the vice-presidency at the request of John F. Kennedy and became president upon the assassination of that beloved president.
Movies about persons at the forefront of history are difficult. Such people are complex and their movement through historical events is uneven. They make mistakes. Sometimes they’re metaphors for series of events beyond their control, and sometimes events occur by the force of these persons’ will.
Oliver Stone gravitates toward subterranean elements of history: conspiracies, psychological failings, personality weaknesses. Rob Reiner on the other hand takes a gentler tack, as he did with Primary Colors, the Clinton takeoff on that couple’s ascendence to power. His vision of LBJ is cut from that same cloth.
Woody Harrelson gives an inspired performance as Johnson, eclipsing the subtler but still fine performances of Jennifer Jason Leigh as his wife Lady Bird (yes, that was her name), Richard Jenkins as Senator Richard Russell, and Jeffrey Donovan as John Kennedy.
The conflicted Johnson rose from the “Solid South” of that era, a group of states underscored by the Civil War, and ascendence at the beginning of the Civil Rights era supported by Kennedy. Harrelson’s foil wasn’t Donovan’s Kennedy in LBJ; Georgia’s Senator Russell was. Friends and fellow southerners, these two men grew apart over Civil Rights, quarreled famously, but LBJ became that legislation’s prevailing instrument.
Perhaps Harrelson’s finest moment in this film is one he shares with JFK’s brother Bobby. “Your brother loved me,” Johnson proclaims (I’m paraphrasing here), “why do you hate me? Why don’t you love me, too?” Alongside Harrelson’s dominating presence, Michael Stahl-David’s (Bobby’s) rebuttal that LBJ wasn’t on the right side of history, pales to a whisper. But John Kennedy had been on history’s correct side, and Johnson knew it.
Where Reiner’s view of Johnson’s presidency fails is in its giving short shrift to Johnson’s legislative skills, which made Kennedy’s view of America’s new direction a reality. Still Reiner has assembled a fine cast and their portrayals of these persons’ roles in that era sparkle.
My rating: 16 of 20 stars
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