Review: 'LBJ', Woody Harrelson Overshadows An Overshadowed President

While watching Rob Reiner's LBJ, a film that disguises Woody Harrelson under a ton of unconvincing makeup to resemble President Lyndon Baines Johnson, all I could think about was the film Jackie. In Natalie Portman's riveting performance as JFK's widow in the days following his assassination, she tirelessly worked to ensure her husband's legacy, that he and everything he hoped to accomplish would be remembered. She would be a fan of LBJ, I think, which isn't so much about its title subject, but how Johnson was caged into enacting an agenda that wasn't his own.

It's a novel and occasionally rewarding approach to take, but overall you don't get a sense of who LBJ really was. He was a complex figure who enacted the most sweeping range of domestic programs ever: Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, all the most popular programs this country has ever seen. But he's also the President who escalated the Vietnam War when public opinion said it was a terrible move. There is a richer film here than the generically-told one that Reiner gives us, despite Harrelson's plucky firebrand of a performance.

The film shows LBJ's ability to walk between both factions of the Democratic Party to achieve "endless compromise". The northern democrats saw him as an ally against racial segregation, while the southern Dixiecrats, who would eventually leave and join the Republican Party, relied on him as their champion. It's this ability to talk with and understand everybody that led John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan, Boston drawl in full effect) to select LBJ as his running mate after defeating him soundly in the Presidential primaries. This flies against the advice of his brother and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), who has no use for LBJ's folksy charms and antiquated notions. If there is a less flattering portrayal of Bobby I've never seen it. Hard to believe this mean-spirited, angry, conniving guy is the same one canonized so in Emilio Estevez's Bobby a decade ago.

What follows is a movie mostly about how marginalized LBJ was as Vice President, with his presence barely tolerated by those Ivy League-educated Kennedy boys. It doesn't always make for compelling viewing, although Reiner peppers in colorful anecdotes, some true some a little less so, that give Harrelson plenty to chew on. There's a scene early on when he's still Senate Majority Leader, muscling his power over everybody who dares into the room. At that moment he's a political heavyweight, and plans to remain so as Vice President. But hemmed in by the Kennedys' need to reign in his influence, LBJ is mostly a side player in the larger game, working angles against political frenemies (Richard Jenkins plays powerful southern democrat Richard Russell) to progress the President's signature civil rights legislation.

Flashforwards to Kennedy's inevitable assassination, captured in that familiar slow caravan of cars down Dallas streets, tease Johnson's eventual ascendancy to power. When that moment does come, Reiner teases the awkwardness of the transition (captured more forcefully in Jackie), but not so much the impact on LBJ to have such power thrust upon him. Short of one moment of weakness in which he laments to wife Lady Bird Johnson (Jennifer Jason Leigh, terrific despite a horrible wicked witch nose) about the weight of expectations, LBJ's transition into a forceful protector of Kennedy's ideals is simplistic and unconvincing. That said, the film's greatest dramatic moments are in these final scenes as LBJ reclaims the gusto he once had, straight-talkin', wheeling and dealing to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, over the clear objections of Russell and the Dixiecrats. Emerging from that victorious, Harrelson's most winning moment comes with a rousing speech to Congress, reaffirming his dedication to seeing through Kennedy's vision, while healing the wounds of racism across the country.

In a year that has seen portrayals of LBJ hit a fever pitch, Harrelson's is by far the most entertaining in his colorful use of vulgarities. But it's also the least authentic, as Harrelson always looks like he's about to rip off the pounds of prosthetics and start reenacting scenes from Zombieland. It reminded me of Bill Murray's performance as FDR (Did all Presidents use acronyms back then??) in Hyde Park On Hudson; a lively outlier in what is ostensibly an Oscar-worthy drama. But despite Harrelson's best efforts, LBJ doesn't offer enough insight to ascend to that level.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5