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Review: LBJ (2017)

LBJ (2017)

Directed by: Rob Reiner

Premise: A biographical movie about Lyndon Baines Johnson (Woody Harrelson), focusing on his transition from the Democratic Senate majority leader to becoming President of the United States after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

What Works: Woody Harrelson turns in a very good performance as the thirty-sixth President of the United States. Johnson was a colorful character who was deliberately lewd in front of his subordinates and co-workers and who was able to adjust his folksy manner to appeal to different groups of people. Harrelson is perfect for that. He’s capable of comedy but Harrelson also conveys Johnson’s intelligence. LBJ does a pretty good job illustrating the complex political struggles of the time within Washington D.C. and the Democratic Party. At that moment the push for civil rights was tearing up the Democratic Party, dividing northern and costal Democrats from their companions in the south, and the film is at its best when it dramatizes how Johnson mediated between these different factions. He is also cast as the pragmatist against the idealism of Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) and here the movie makes a bold case that political skill trumps ideological passion, even if that passion is rooted in something good like justice and equality.

What Doesn’t: LBJ is a failure in storytelling structure. A key part of the craft of storytelling is knowing what details to emphasize and what details to let go and proportioning the narrative so that the most important moments get the most screen time. LBJ is all over the place. The movie gets bogged down in redundant and unimportant details. There are quite a few solemn sequences of Johnson quietly pontificating on power and politics while much more important moments are sped through. This movie sets itself up as about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; all the conflicts between Bobby Kennedy and Johnson and among members of the Democratic Party are rooted in that struggle. But when the movie finally gets to the Johnson administration working on that bill the entire effort is compressed into a montage. (For comparison, see the movie All the Way, which was also about the passage of civil rights legislation and was much better in every respect, but especially this one.) Also problematic is the way that LBJ portrays the struggle for civil rights without any meaningful African American characters at all. The contributions of activists and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. are virtually absent from the movie. LBJ gives the impression that civil rights legislation came to fruition entirely from the efforts of Washington politicians. Also rendered invisible is the war in Vietnam. The filmmakers are so quick to lionize Lyndon Johnson that they ignore his faults and the war gets barely any mention in the movie. LBJ also looks terrible. The production design and the computer generated settings look like something out of an educational video and the prosthetics on Woody Harrelson look rubbery and fake.

Bottom Line: LBJ is a mediocre and in some ways troubling film. It wastes a good cast, and especially Woody Harrelson, in a shoddy production of a screenplay that suffers from elementary storytelling mistakes and a simplistic regard for complex history.

Episode: #675 (November 19, 2017)