Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins
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“…LBJ moves at a fast, highly entertaining clip…”
With the right wing flying high in America courtesy of the increasingly unpredictable President Donald J. Trump, it’s fitting that the cinema has seen a mini-glut of films recently that hark back to equally difficult but more politically progressive times. Jackie painted in the details of the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination through the eyes of his widowed First Lady, while Chappaquiddick depicted the infamous car accident that nearly derailed Ted Kennedy. Now, LBJ (which first played film festivals in 2016) takes another look at the legacy of John F. Kennedy, this time via the oft-maligned figure of Lyndon B. Johnson, the Vice President thrust into the oval office when tragedy struck in Dealey Plaza.
And while Johnson’s noted bullish, bullying narcissism is not questioned, director Rob Reiner, screenwriter Joey Hartstone and leading man Woody Harrelson (who would reteam in 2017 for the little seen politically themed Bush era drama, Shock And Awe) deliver a more nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of The 36th President than has previously been seen, even in the 2016 HBO television film, All The Way, in which Bryan Cranston excelled as LBJ.
Focusing on the period leading up to and following JFK’s assassination, LBJ sees Woody Harrelson in fine fettle in the title role. Though buried under layers of initially jarring makeup, he instantly and ingeniously taps into the core of LBJ, capturing both his brusque Texan no-nonsense tough guy attitude, but also his crippling self-doubt and sad desperation to achieve power and influence. Yes, he’s seen brutishly barking orders while taking a dump (as he also was when amusingly essayed by Liev Schreiber in 2013’s The Butler) and cutting down his opponents with aggressive vigour (he memorably tells Bill Pullman’s Senator Ralph Yarborough that he’s “got shit for brains”), but Johnson also movingly asks of many people why they just don’t like him. Almost like Shrek with a political agenda, he’s depicted here as a sensitive ogre with a big heart hidden by an ugly exterior.
Detailing Johnson’s assumption of office (his conflicting excitement at scoring the top job and sense of loss over JFK is palpable and brilliantly handled) and then continuation of JFK’s progressive civil liberties policies (his far less popular position on Vietnam is left to the film’s closing title cards), LBJ moves at a fast, highly entertaining clip. It delivers effective thumbnail characterisations (Jeffrey Donovan’s JFK is a cunning but towering figure; his brother, Bobby – well played by Michael Stahl-David – is a smug, superior snake; Richard Jenkins’ bigoted Senator Richard Russell would only feel more complete if he was wearing a white hood; and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lady Bird Johnson is a sweet and funny rock of support), and an intelligent dissection of the troubled times in which it unfolds.
While LBJ’s message about sensible bipartisanship and moral fortitude is clear and well stated (Johnson ultimately unites his government’s warring factions to make a big step forward on civil rights), what really lingers is the perennially underrated Woody Harrelson’s big, funny, full bodied performance. Like LBJ himself , he’s also a colourful, confusing good ol’ boy from Texas who never quite gets his proper due, and he puts every fibre of his being into the role. The results are unforgettable.