Out on Bluray from director Jay Roach and HBO Home Entertainment is a look inside a history time has forgotten with “All the Way.”
It is a day locked into American history when President John F. Kennedy was murdered by an assassin’s bullet. Swiftly, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is taken back to Washington, D.C., and on the flight he is sworn in as the 36th president of the United States.
Stepping into the Oval Office, President Johnson (Bryan Cranston) takes in his surroundings. The weight is heavy, knowing that he is following in the footsteps of a beloved president yet also knowing what he does from that moment will define who he is as a leader. First lady Bird Johnson (Melissa Leo) is also keenly aware of what has happened, and becomes the strength he needs.
Action is all but immediate as the issues before him are the passage of the Civil Rights Act under the watchful eye of Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie). Being disappointed before by politicians, King is deliberately careful in working with the president.
Already up in arms are the Southern Democrats, especially when Johnson announces his plans. President Johnson knows that he needs V.P. Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) in the fold to reach the angered statesmen. From Sen. Richard Russell (Frank Langella) to Rep. Howard Smith (Ken Jenkins) to the every suspicious J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root), the deliberate twists and turns that this president makes are essential.
Wanting his legacy to mean something, President Johnson’s War on Poverty and the out of control Vietnam War keep him fighting for the American people.
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with director Jay Roach to not only hear about his experience in making “All the Way,” but also his own passions about what it means in this election year and the historical underestimating of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Jeri Jacquin: Hello Jay, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. How are you besides doing tons of these interviews?
Jay Roach: Hello Jeri. I’m doing fine and really I don’t mind at all. I think LBJ was an interesting person really. How are you?
JJ: Not bad thanks. This piece is about the part of history that I love, so I’m going to jump right in since you made that comment about LBJ, is that what drew you to the project?
JR: Absolutely, I saw the play a couple of time and was already working with Bryan [Cranston] on the film “Trumbo.” I grew up around the time that LBJ was president and unfortunately most people, and I was one of them; think of him in terms of how unpopular he was during and after the Vietnam War. That was definitely part of who he was, but when I was reminded of the incredible amount of things he did as president and teaming up with Congress and Civil Rights leaders, he changed our country for the better in dozens and dozens of ways. Also, Medicare and Medicaid, public education, the arts and an unbelievable amount of constructive legislation all while providing jobs and paying for it. We didn’t have a crazy deficit! LBJ was as presidential as a person can be which is a great thing and to have the Bluray out now during the election calls to mind what is presidential? What does that mean to be presidential? Who is really qualified to be president and what does leadership look like? You watch LBJ the first couple of years of his presidency and you will see what being presidential means.
JJ: It is extremely difficult to follow in the footsteps of someone like President John F. Kennedy, and you show that very well in the scene where he walks into the Oval Office and he is just standing there taking everything in. Even down to the desk he was just looking.
JR: He was definitely an underdog and people made fun of him being from the South and being a Texan and coming from a poor education. He went to a Texas teachers college instead of a school like the other Ivy Leaguers, but he believed in the power of Americans teamed up. We team up and we get things done. In the best situations we use government to get things done. He believed government was best teaming up to get things done, to accomplish a higher quality of life and to rid the country of injustice as in the Jim Crow Laws. He believed in that. To me that is really important to be reminded that it does take faith in this system and it’s easy to tear it down. One of my favorite quotes in the film is that “any jackass can tear a house down but it takes a carpenter to build one back up.” He was a carpenter, but he had faith in building things together, faith in being a team when it could have been easier to divide us by fear and hate. I was saying that LBJ is the anti-Trump because he had faith and knew how to get things done for people. I think LBJ would look at Trump as an amateur.
JJ: He had that Texan good-ole-boy way of speaking, and I think that led people to believe that he wasn’t a smart man.
JR: He could sneak up on them. They did dismiss and underestimated him. I think you are right. I think it’s a good observation that he was so sort of every-man-ish in certain ways because he came from the middle of the country and he was funny. That’s one of the things I love of Bryan Cranston’s portrayal is that he reminds us of how funny LBJ was. We got to listen to hours and hours of tapes of LBJ and the phone calls and such and he was actually hilarious. He could tell pretty dirty jokes and he could also drive you around in a car drinking, drive too fast and act like it’s going to crash in a lake only to discover it was an amphibious car! He would do that to then have a serious conversation once the ice was broken saying things like, “Now how do we get the Civil Rights Act passed?” That’s what I loved about his character.
JJ: Because Congress thought of him as a certain way, for him to come out and flip the tables on them that said, “Look, I know you’re concerned because it is still the good ole boys club…” but he needed to dodge and weave to get things done.
JR: That’s what I think is sad that people devalue experience in politics. He knew that’s how you got things done. He had been a congressman and in the U.S. House of Representatives for a dozen years and a senator for a dozen years, so he knew how to get people to team up and accomplish things. That took dozens of years of experience to know how to make that happen. LBJ was a pro, and I think we need pros in leadership and again that’s why I’m happy the film is coming out on Bluray. We were all committed to show what government can accomplish when people team up and work together. Robert Schenkkan adapted his play, and that is a huge part of the story – what you do with power when you get it. It’s how you build your strengths and knowledge to actually achieve things and he sets a great example of what presidential looks like. In those early years he stacks up with any of our presidents.
JJ: I would have to think that every time Bryan Cranston walked on set jaws dropped. It had to be freaky!
JR: It was pretty incredible to see. We saw it in phases with our great make-up person Bill Corso, and we were working on wardrobe with Daniel Orlandi down to getting the glasses right and hair. When it all came together for the camera test it was astounding. I had seen Bryan already on Broadway, and he had achieved almost a perfect match but because he didn’t have the full prosthetic makeup, when he came out it was amazing. Bryan’s talent and connection with the soul of LBJ, he was channeling him absolutely. One of the people who knew LBJ back then, Larry Temple, said he wasn’t seeing a great interpretation of LBJ but felt like he was actually with LBJ. That’s a compliment.
JJ: It’s not just the instant reaction but the mannerisms but the way he looks, or sits or staring out a window, you forget it’s Bryan Cranston.
JR: Bryan has let himself fall away at that point and let LBJ take over in every way. He is one of the great actors of this era. It’s a fantastic screenplay by Schenkkan, but there is something truly extraordinary about what Bryan can do. I felt lucky to get to watch it all and having him go up against actors like Frank Langella and Anthony Mackie as MLK and Bradley Whitford as Humphrey. He is just surrounded by fantastic talent and had people just as committed about channeling their characters.
JJ: I had to smile thinking that Frank Langella and Bradley Whitford have had their term at the White House, so they fit right into this piece.
JR: Yes, Frank had played Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” and Bradley was on “The West Wing.” You definitely get the sense of actors teaming up because there are some scenes where they go after each other but it’s all in the story of this incredible president.
JJ: Choosing Anthony Mackie to portray Martin Luther King, there is such a quietness about him. Most characters portraying MLK are usually boisterous with the feeling of the speeches. Mackie takes the introspective side of King in this piece just as LBJ has those moments of introspection.
JR: They had a lot to get done together and LBJ could never have passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act without King’s support and collaboration. They weren’t perfectly in synch because King didn’t trust LBJ because of the leaders in the past. Even JFK didn’t deliver fully on the promise. So watching them try to figure out how they can trust each other was a really great thing. Anthony made a great choice and a wise choice like you were saying of trying to capture the quiet strength of the man because we already know his oratorical strength. He chose to try to get at that quiet strength and there are some interviews available where King is quietly describing what matters to him and how he is going to go at it. Anthony really studied those and I believe he did a beautiful job capturing the thoughtful and powerful King.
JJ: The frustration level of having to start over with another president, which would make any of us frustrated. He gets to that but he does it more in an introspective way rather than combative way.
JR: I do appreciate you saying that. Just knowing with the Emmy Nominations, I mean Melissa Leo does such an amazing job as first lady Bird Johnson.
JR: Lady Bird was an incredibly strong woman who knew how to get things done herself in a quiet way. LBJ was a flawed man and a very tough guy to live with, but she accomplished a tremendous amount in her time as first lady and set a new tone for what first ladies could accomplish. She was the first to have her own office, staff and a very orchestrated situation that allowed her to do things like beautifying the highways. She was his collaborator in every way. I thought Melissa just nailed that strength mixed with the Southern charm and loving wife. My parents are both from Texas, so I understood what that called for. It was personal for me to get that spirit right.
JJ: Yes, congratulations on all the Emmy Nominations, that’s amazing.
JR: Thank you, thank you very much. It is hard for political films to get recognition so we are so pleased to be a part of the conversation again.
JJ: The nominations are not just for one or two categories but instead cover such a vast part of what you all have accomplished. That’s the amazing part of what you have brought together, it’s a culmination of things.
JR: I appreciate that. There was so much talent on our team and I’m glad the film got noticed and I obviously thought the screenplay was incredible being based on the play from Robert Schenkkan [who is also one of the executive producers], the makeup and the music. We are really happy for the show and again, in this election time, that the Bluray gets another shot at it of raising peoples awareness of what it means to be the president of the United States. Now is a good time to be talking about LBJ.
JJ: This would be amazing to be played for students.
JR: I’m actually giving a little speech for an organization called Facing History and their commitment is making historical materials available to teachers and school kids. I’m glad you said that because I am hoping there is a way for it to be made available in some sort of edited version. It gives everyone a chance to be part of the conversation that asks the questions of what it means to be a president and how teaming up helps us get things done. It’s harder now trying to find people who believe in leadership and in government and that we are all trying to help get things done.
JJ: Finally, if you could, what would you want the readers to know about this piece in that it is not only important but also relevant to us now?
JR: This movie is about what a truly presidential person does with power when he gets it. He worked his whole life to get to this point but always knew that he wanted to do something with it. He says about getting the Civil Rights Act passed, “If I can’t use my power to right a horrible injustice, then what is the presidency for?” That sums up LBJ and to watch his very early years and see what we can do as a nation when we team up and put our faith in our system to get things done. He believed in that more and is such a fantastic topic of conversation for where we are now in this presidential election. What is leadership? What is presidential? I do think those early years of LBJ couldn’t be more timely. He did so much from November of 1963 to the reelection and he was on fire!
JJ: I enjoyed every moment of the film and appreciate your time.
Cranston as LBJ has taken a character that has been in the shadows for so long and given it a light that is incredibly bright. There isn’t a moment that is not riveting, jaw dropping, moving and motivating, and I believe director Roach may be correct in saying that there was some serious LBJ channeling going on here. It is a performance worthy of all the praise Cranston is receiving.
Leo as the first lady epitomizes the look and feel of a Southern woman of the times. From the perfection of her appearance to the ability to remain calm under pressure, Leo’s red lipstick smile was disarming – which I’m sure was the first lady’s intention each and every time.
Mackie as Martin Luther King, Jr. took the quiet rode down his character’s path. Having been disappointed by broken promises, it is not surprising that he would be on guard with the new president. It is in Mackie’s moments of thoughtfulness and calm that are the most impressive scenes.
Whitford as Vice President Humphrey seemed like a man certainly caught in the middle. It is difficult to support your commander-in-chief on one hand while having the Southern leadership breathing down one’s neck! Quite the performance. Langella as Sen. Russell has a voice and stare that scares me more than anything. There is such power in his facial features that he made is all seem effortless.
“All the Way” brings out a stellar cast that absolutely needs to be recognized with Marque Richardson as Bob Moses, Aisha Hinds as Fannie Lou Hamer, Todd Weeks as Walter Jenkins, Mo McRae as Stokely Carmichael, Spencer Garrett as Walter Reuther, Tim True as Deke Deloach, Bruce Nozick as Stanley Levison, Ned Van Zandt as Senator Fullbright, Ray Wise as Sen. Dirksen, Eric Pumphrey as Dave Dennis, Dohn Norwood as Ralph Abernathy and Joe Morton as Roy Wilkins.
TUBS OF POPCORN: I give “All the Way” four and a half tubs of popcorn out of five. Writer Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” stage production premiered in 2012 and in 2013 it ran at the American Repertory Theater in Boston with Bryan Cranston starring as LBJ. In 2014, the show came to Broadway and Cranston received a Tony Award for his performance. It is perfection that Cranston once again takes on the role for the HBO film.
As a history lover, “All the Way” is just perfection. From it’s casting to the cinematography, costuming, soundtrack and performances, if you want people to believe what they are watching then excel in all the above. That’s what director Roach has accomplished, putting us all into a time machine and whisking us back to see what the history books left out.
His ability to bring the story of President Johnson who is sandwiched between the beloved John F. Kennedy and the infamous Richard Nixon is getting his own shot at, as director Roach calls it, “being presidential” and you’ll be educated for taking the time to see what has been sublimely put together.
In the end — he was in it all the way!