Susan Granger’s review of “LBJ” (Electric Entertainment)
There’s no question that Lyndon Baines Johnson had his eye on the White House during his tenure as Senate Majority Leader. But being a good poker player and canny pragmatist, he knew when to ‘hold ‘em’ and when to ‘fold ‘em,’ which is why he agreed to run as John F. Kennedy’s Vice-President after failing to get the 1960 Democratic nomination for himself.
“Lyndon, you have more experience and more talent and more wisdom,” Kennedy admits. “Unfortunately, this is politics and none of that matters.”
This historical biopic begins in Texas on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) is assassinated and Johnson (Woody Harrelson), with his supportive wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at his side, is suddenly thrust into the Oval Office, much to the disgust of his longtime adversary Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David).
The racist Southern caucus, led by Georgia’s venomous Sen. Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), assumes that LBJ will torpedo Kennedy’s contentious Civil Rights Act, only to discover that, as the new President, LBJ is determined to solidify Kennedy’s legacy by championing the causes on which he won the election.
As Johnson cynically puts it: while charismatic Kennedy was the “show horse,” he’s the “work horse.” Under LBJ’s leadership, the progressive Medicare, Medicad and Head Start programs were implemented.
Scripted by first-time screenwriter Joey Hartstone and directed by Rob Reiner, it’s not only underdeveloped, even contrived at times, but also weighed down by a jumbled, non-linear time frame that turns out to be a major distraction. And Johnson’s fatal escalation of the United States’ involvement the Vietnam War is barely mentioned.
Wearing a toupee, prosthetics, horn-rimmed glasses and platform shoes, Woody Harrelson delivers a powerhouse performance, but he never quite captures LBJ’s ability to intimidate his adversaries.
The 36th President has already been portrayed by Liev Schreiber (“The Butler”), Tom Wilkinson (“Selma”) John Carroll Lynch (“Jackie”) and Bryan Cranston (“All the Way”). And since historian Robert Caro is still working on his multi-volume biography, more actors will inevitably play LBJ in the future.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “LBJ” is a straightforward 6, a solid political drama.