Movie Review: LBJ
LBJ is the newest biopic from Director Rob Reiner depicting Lyndon B. Johnson’s journey from Texas Congressman to President of the United States. Woody Harrelson portrays Johnson in the film, and Jeffrey Donovan portrays President John F. Kennedy. The rest of the supporting cast is also comprised of Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The film opened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 but only released theatrically over the weekend.
The film’s crux is placed on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas in the moments before and after Kennedy’s assassination. The story has a number of flashbacks revealing how Lyndon B. Johnson (Harrelson) handled the other members of Congress as the Majority Leader and eventually accepted the bid as Kennedy’s Vice Presidential candidate. The flashbacks also reveal Johnson’s frustrations as Vice President and his turbulent relationship most notably with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Stahl-David). The film eventually continues with what transpired in the days following Kennedy’s death and the struggle of Johnson to transition into the role of President and whether he could follow in the footsteps of such a beloved public figure.
As someone who absolutely loves history, I had some previous knowledge about the often contradictory and interesting character of Lyndon B. Johnson. With that said, I have to give praise to Woody Harrelson for his portrayal of Johnson because it simply felt real. He gave charisma to the man who could curry votes and favor in Congress while also conveying the insecurities that often plagued him. Harrelson’s performance was fantastic, and I enjoyed most of the performances given by the supporting cast. It was a little weird for me to see Jeffrey Donovan as JFK just because of the years I spent watching Burn Notice, but his performance was perfectly fine. I also found that Michael Stahl-David’s performance as Bobby Kennedy certainly took center stage on multiple occasions, and some of my favorite moments are scenes where Harrelson and he shared the screen.
While there are always some historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies for the sake of drama and character development, I found LBJ to still give an honest look at the many sides of Johnson. Personally, he really was a complicated man. He craved the love of the public, and his journey for their favor often exposed his insecurities. He also had some odd quirks, and as the film showed, it wasn’t unusual for him to sit on the toilet with the door open so he could continue to speak with his advisors. At the same time, this man could be an absolute bulldog and was incredibly calculated in a lot of the decisions he made. The film captured all of that quite well, and I’m glad that they highlighted his personal struggles as much as his political ones.
They also portrayed well his often turbulent relationships with the Kennedys. JFK beat him for the Democratic nomination in 1960, and while Bobby would have preferred for Johnson to go back to Congress, JFK offered him the Vice Presidential bid. Bobby Kennedy and Johnson were typically at odds with one another, and while Johnson wanted to be President, he could also see how Bobby was angling to run in 1968 after JFK finished what all assumed would be eight years in office. The filmmakers also captured Johnson’s complicated relationship with civil rights as a Southern Democrat. He had often stilted civil rights legislation in the past to curry favor for his eventual presidential run, but personally, he was more of a progressive.
Overall, Rob Reiner manages to present a look at the man who wanted the Presidency but received it in the worst way possible. He chronicles as best as he can in 90 minutes how Johnson became the one who put momentum into civil rights legislation. Most notably, though, he captures the spirit of the man who was neither fully saint nor sinner, capturing both his good moments and the bad. It was definitely an interesting film, and anyone who is a true lover of history will probably enjoy watching it. So, while I think LBJ is worth a watch, I suggest waiting until it is available to buy or rent through Redbox.
Mollie is a film enthusiast, aspiring writer/screenwriter, and a lover of all things Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. She is the co-founder of The Digital Shore (@thedigitalshore) and Above The Line (@atl_movies). You can follow her many adventures through Twitter and Instagram at @mcbeach.