Directed by: Jay Roach
Premise: After President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, Lyndon Johnson (Bryan Cranston) assumes the office and puts forth civil rights legislation. He works with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie) and tries to assuage Southern Democrats in the United States Congress.
What Works: HBO Films has produced several excellent dramatizations of electoral politics. These include Recount, about the disputed 2000 presidential election, and Game Change which dramatized the Republican presidential ticket in the 2008 race, both directed by Jay Roach. All the Way is as good as these other titles and in a few respects it is even better. What has distinguished these films has been their verisimilitude. When historical moments are turned into dramas they frequently take on a sense of inevitability; we know how the story ends and the filmmakers treat the events as though the outcome is preordained which ultimately kills the drama. Recount, Game Change, and All the Way restore the uncertainty of the moment. They do this in part through the approach to the material. Historical dramas, especially those dealing with big moments and legendary figures, tend to stage scenes in a way that is sentimental and reverential. Such is the case with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a film that played like a cinematic museum exhibit. All the Way is staged and shot in a very naturalistic way that puts the audience in the moment. The performances of the film complement this style. At the center of All the Way is the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., figures who have become legendary in American history and who lend themselves to caricature. As Johnson, Bryan Cranston captures the president’s unique southern drawl and good old boy affect. But he also creates a full character, a flesh and blood man who was flawed and whose crass sense of humor belied a sharp intelligence. Anthony Mackie plays King and Mackie presents one of the most revered figures in American history as a human being who was willing to make short term compromises to achieve long term goals. All the Way also includes Frank Langella as Senator Richard Russell and Bradley Whitford as Senator Hubert Humphrey. Langella could be just another southern racist caricature but the actor provides some nuance to the role and Whitford is the good soldier who is overwhelmed by the demands being put on him by the President. This naturalistic approach creates a complex portrayal of politics. The film dramatizes idealism implemented through less than ideal means and the film has an appropriately cynical regard for power and allegiance. That gives All the Way an edge that we don’t usually expect from a historical drama.
What Doesn’t: All the Way features Melissa Leo as First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. Leo is good in the part but in this film the First Lady is generally limited to the role of the doting housewife. There’s not much in All the Way about her work as First Lady but then again the film is primarily focused on civil rights which puts Bird Johnson’s beatification initiatives outside the purview of the story. But the character is underwritten especially when compared to the treatment of Pat Nixon (Joan Allen) in 1995’s Nixon or the portrayal of Abigail Adams (Laura Linney) in the John Adams miniseries. The legacy of the Lyndon Johnson Administration is a complicated one and All the Way doesn’t take full stock of the negative aspects of his presidency. In particular, the film deals awkwardly with the war in Vietnam. It’s mostly simmering in the background and there are a few moments in which it bubbles to the surface. The Vietnam scenes come across as an aside amid the rest of the drama and All the Way may be too forgiving of Johnson’s response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident that expanded the Vietnam War.
DVD extras: Featurettes.
Bottom Line: All the Way is a fascinating look at the people, political calculations, and socio-political forces at work in an important moment in recent American history. Its sober approach and nuanced performances allow the film to be a complex portrayal of power and politics that is relevant to the present moment.
Episode: #620 (November 6, 2016)