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LBJ (2017) - Movie Review

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LBJ (2017) - Movie Review

2 starsSay what you will about Lyndon Baines Johnson. Yes, he was ornery. Yes, he was a bullish old cuss. And yes, he was probably one of the most foul-mouthed and crude presidents in our nation’s hist... well, er... never mind.

Regardless, peel back that unflinching facade, look past the riverboat gambler buffoonery, and you’ll find one of the most accomplished presidents in our country’s history. And he did it by being an astute politician willing to wheel and deal, and give and take towards a workable solution. Something we’ve not seen in modern politics in quite some time, and a fact highlighted in Rob Reiner’s new biopic about the 36th president called LBJ.

The film isn’t so much an LBJ biopic as it is an insular look at two particular slices of time during the man’s political tenure. Granted, very important slices of time. The first highlights Johnson’s (Woody Harrelson) 1960 campaign run against John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) for the Democratic party’s nomination. The second focuses on the periods of time on both sides of the Kennedy assassination as LBJ became Kennedy’s running mate and eventually moved into the white house to carry on with his predecessor’s legacy, that included the civil rights movement. As the film plays out, we jump back and forth between the two timelines. There’s no apparent reason for the fractured timeline, so it only serves as an unnecessary distraction within an already overly-cluttered film.

Surprisingly missing from LBJ, is any exploration of the assassination and how it affected the country, the Kennedy family, or even the world. Though always fascinating to see the complex machinations of a governmental power handover following such a tragedy, Reiner is more interested in exploring Johnson as a control-loving bureaucrat who willingly takes on the powerless role of Vice President before eventually being thrust into the presidency with a certain amount of regret and anguish. Also missing is anything more than a few words about the Vietnam war which was as pivotal a moment in Johnson’s presidency as any.

Johnson was undoubtedly a live-wire of a personality and Harrelson chews the scenery quicker than they can throw it at him as he struggles to capture the Texas rancher’s welcoming back-porch wit and foolhardy demeanor without sending it over into impersonation. But that’s an impossibly futile task from beneath three inches of latex and silicone that keep us mesmerized at how little his padded jowls, billowing cheeks, and flagging wattle move when he speaks. Good make-up should enhance and never hinder, but the artists were tasked with a miracle here, and sadly, it’s a total distraction we can’t keep our eyes off of. Someone much older, and less like Woody Harrelson might have been the smarter choice.

Harrelson captures Johnson’s bluster and braggadocio best in LBJ when he’s going on and on to his tailor about needing more room in the crotch of his britches due to the size of his manhood, or when he’s conducting governmental business from atop the commode. And his backroom negotiations with good-old-boy Democratic Senator and former Georgia governor Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) are truly captivating to watch as a didactic lesson into old-school politics. But the dialogue, as provided by screenwriter Joey Hartstone, is rarely ever dynamic enough to rise to the challenge and never gives Harrelson the hammer to forge the multi-layered, dynamic character such a bold personality deserves.

One of the film’s bright spots is Michael Stahl-David whose Bobby Kennedy character actually gets more screen time than his brother. The strained nature of his relationship with Johnson is truly quite fascinating and brings to the forefront an under-explored poignancy about the precarious balance between Kennedy’s need for a running mate who can get the Southern vote, and Johnson’s wily desire for power. The dynamic for something much bigger is there, but sadly, Reiner pulls back on the reigns.

LBJ’s overarching theme is certainly a valiant one that couldn’t be any more timely than it is right now. Johnson was his own man and certainly did things his own way. Yet he never stopped working the room and found ways to pass some of the biggest legislation in our country’s history during one of our most divisive periods. There’s something for each of us to remember and learn from that. The problem is that in LBJ, it’s just not that interesting. If only the movie were as big, bold, and bombastic as the man it is about.

LBJ (2017) - Movie Review

MPAA Rating: R for language.
Runtime:
98 mins
Director
: Rob Reiner
Writer:
Joey Hartstone
Cast:
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Woody Harrelson, Bill Pullman
Genre
: Biography | Drama | History
Tagline:
Afilm by Rob Reiner.
Memorable Movie Quote: "nominations are not won on the campaign trail. They are won on the convention floor."
Theatrical Distributor:
Electric Entertainment
Official Site: http://www.lbjfilm.com/
Release Date:
November 3, 2017
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
No details available.
Synopsis: The story of U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson from his young days in West Texas to the White House.

LBJ (2017) - Movie Review

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LBJ (2017) - Movie Review

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