This week in theaters from director Rob Reiner and Electric Entertainment is a story about a man few knew at this moment in history with “LBJ.”
Lyndon B. Johnson (Woody Harrelson) is a Texan who is sought out by John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) to be his vice president. After the election, the business of the country begins as LBJ tries to find his place in the administration. It is clear that LBJ struggles with the issues of his party and the president’s brother Robert F. Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David).
The president tries to give his vice president things to do, but Johnson pushes to help the president with his civil rights agenda. Much of what he says falls on deaf ears, making the situation even more uncomfortable. That would all change in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. On the plane returning to Washington, LBJ with his wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by his side, he is sworn in as the next president of the United States.
Immediately, LBJ sees the struggle of being compared to the Kennedys, knowing that a country is grieving. Privately he is a man coming to terms with who he is as well as what he can do to bring a broken country together.
Going to those in the administration who don’t want to serve him, or can’t see this new president carrying the torch of a dream, LBJ speaks to the country with a heartfelt message. In that is the start of his own presidency but helping to finish the presidency of another.
He wanted the healing to begin.
Harrelson is astounding as LBJ with his one-liners, his staunch belief in what he has to offer and the man with human flaws. I am in awe of Harrelson’s performance, and after seeing this film there could be no other actor to have done this.
Leigh as Lady Bird is stunning in her prosthetics because I didn’t realize who she was at first. This is a role. Lady Bird comes from a time where the world was changing and she knows her husband must come to grips with his own changes. Donovan as Kennedy, although a smaller role, explains the tense relationship between Kennedy and LBJ.
Stahl-David as Robert Kennedy makes it clear he isn’t going to make things easy for LBJ. Even when LBJ becomes president, he reaches out to Bobby but it’s hard to get help from someone who is grieving a lost dream.
Other cast include: Bill Pullman as Ralph Yarborough, C. Thomas Howell as Walter Jenkins, Michael Mosley as Kenny O’Donnell, Richard Jenkins as Senator Russell, Rich Sommer as Pierre Salinger, Wallace Langham as Arthur Schlesinger, Judd Lormand as Robert McNamara and Brian Stepanek as Rufus Youngblood.
“LBJ” is a startling look at a man who is in a position to either stay stuck in a time out of fear or be a part of a vision to make the world a better place. What makes this film so amazing to watch is that Harrelson gets lost in the makeup, and LBJ comes to life.
Historically, there hasn’t been a film that tells the story of how LBJ became Kennedy’s choice for vice president and what purpose did it serve to do so. Watching Harrelson take this character from candidate to president is riveting in the frustration LBJ felt in wanting to make a difference, appeasing those who wanted the status quo and being compared to a fallen president.
Making a name for himself, the story of LBJ’s own journey of breaking with tradition, breaking with history and even breaking with friendships to promote what the country needed makes this film relevant.
LBJ didn’t have a problem being blustery and saying exactly what he meant — even if it was followed by twisted Texas saying which had me cracking up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Harrelson caught himself chuckling more than a time or two. Reiner captured the moments where letting the lines of LBJ stun the audience that equals the same stun when LBJ shows emotion.
I actually think “LBJ” would have been a stellar mini-series because there is so much more to tell about this man and his presidency. I would have definitely signed up for that series! The cinematography is beautifully done and the costuming is impeccable. The set designs bring the White House of the ’60s to us.
In the end — he is about to change more than himself!