Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Lyndon Baines Johnson was a career politician who served in the Senate for years before being selected by President John F. Kennedy to be his Vice President. After Kennedy was assassinated, LBJ took over as President. He was a very powerful man who knew how to play the political game and was an expert at coercing other politicians into supporting what he wanted. He was responsible for passing some important civil rights legislation and received a ton of criticism for the way he handled the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Rob Reiner’s film LBJ is a mildly interesting tribute to the man that mainly focuses on his skill as a diplomat.
The film begins in 1959 with Johnson (two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson) making things happen as Senate Majority Leader. He wants to be president, but takes his time announcing his candidacy. By the time he does, JFK (Jeffrey Donovan, from season two of FX’s Fargo) has taken control of the Democratic party. JFK wins the nomination and, against the advice of his closest advisors (including his brother Bobby, played by Michael Stahl-David), selects Johnson as his VP. Most of the film is about how Johnson acts as a go-between for JFK with some far less progressive southern Democrats, specifically Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins, a Best Actor Oscar nominee in 2009 for The Visitor).
The film is a biopic in that it is about a real person. However, it is not truly a biography of Lyndon Johnson. It only covers about five years of his life and, by that time, he has already become the person he is going to be. Reiner does not show him learning or growing. His main purpose seems to be showing Johnson at work. He does that pretty effectively. And Woody Harrelson is good at portraying Johnson’s outward strength and inward anxieties. But there is no real drama here.
Granted, everyone who sees this movie has a reasonably good idea of how the story is going to turn out. Still, Reiner and his screenwriter, Joey Hartstone (who also wrote Reiner’s upcoming Shock and Awe), could have delved more into who LBJ was as a man. They mainly stick to who he was as a politician. There are interesting things here, to be sure. However, more insight into his personal life would have been appreciated. I never got a real grip on how he became this man. There are a couple of intimate scenes between him and his wife, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee in 2016 for The Hateful Eight). However, most of the film takes place in offices and boardrooms.
LBJ (92 minutes not including the end credits) is really carried by the strength of its acting. It is mostly a one-man show for Harrelson who is on-screen for the vast majority of it. That being said, Leigh, Donovan, Stahl-David, Jenkins, Bill Pullman (most recently seen in another based on fact film, the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs story Battle of the Sexes) as Texas Senator Ralph Yarbrough and C. Thomas Howell as LBJ’s aide Walter Jenkins all provide solid support. They are there mainly so viewers can see how Johnson plays off of them, but they fill those roles as well as can be expected.
LBJ is a well-made film that, in the end, is so laser focused on one specific period of time that it ends up lacking in overall substance. It is intriguing enough to be worth a watch, though its lack of real insight and dramatic involvement makes it feel like a missed opportunity.
3 out of 5
Woody Harrelson as Lyndon B. Johnson
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson
Jeffrey Donovan as John F. Kennedy
Michael Stahl-David as Robert F. Kennedy
Richard Jenkins as Richard Russell
Bill Pullman as Ralph Yarborough
C. Thomas Howell as Walter Jenkins
Michael Mosley as Kenny O’Donnell
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Joey Hartstsone