There’s something garish about LBJ in a way that can’t help but feel interesting. That applies both to Rob Reiner’s biopic, a seeming amalgam of approaches that result in an odd mutt of a film, as well as well as Woody Harrelson’s lead performance that fits in perfectly with the film’s stylistic hybridization. In short, it’s a weird, well-meaning movie that might just be worth watching.
Harrelson is far and away the main draw here (unless you’re a fan of Jeffrey Donovan, who graduates from Robert F. Kennedy in J. Edgar to playing big brother Jack), but LBJ is also the kind of oddity that’s worth a watch to see how it stacks up against the Presidential biopic mold. If structural uniqueness and enough laughs to see it through are key, well, then I feel compelled to call this one a winner even though I’ll probably have no memory of it come December. The film’s Lyndon B. Johnson is far more Harrelson than the man himself, which was to be expected, but Reiner uses Harrelson’s own duality as a performer – both the Harrelson you want to share a beer with as he laughs and the Harrelson working to keep you at arm’s length with his passive aggression – to sell an image of LBJ as a man stepping over people in his pursuit of power, but a man humbled and transformed by the life & death of JFK.
It’s as much a JFK movie as it is a film about his VP, which isn’t far off from last year’s moodier Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s piece about how we canonize history. The Space Race President can’t help but feel like a looming spectre even after his assassination. LBJ plays nearly like a sister film to Jackie, albeit without the same emotional resonance (it neither attempts those same emotional highs, nor is it overly concerned with America’s national mourning at the time), opening with the administration’s arrival in Dallas on the day of Kennedy’s assassination as it flashes back intermittently to scenes from Johnson’s political career. It feels like your average “Greatest Hits” Wikipedia biopic for a period, jumping from event to event amidst Johnson’s rise and eventual Vice-Presidency-as-participation-trophy in a politically evolving bipartisan landscape, but by forcing us to view his disdain for the Kennedys through the lens of the tragedy that befalls them, it makes him the bad guy in his own story even though that story proves enjoyable.
Harrelson’s foul-mouthed LBJ is a joy to watch, and he’s complemented strangely by the film’s occasional penchant for expressionism. Light has no logical source in Reiner’s world; it merely blasts through doorways feeling hot and harsh, often highlighting the contours of Harrelson’s fake nose and hairpiece, which clash wildly with his naturalistic, everyman approach to the text. Regardless of intent, this LBJ is enourmously caricatured in appearance, but Harrelson’s contrasting demeanor feels like an experiment in itself. He’s a larger than life presence whose silent guile must take center stage, especially if it’s to be subverted by the end and he’s to ascend to the American Presidency’s bombastic pulpit.
LBJ plays both sides as long as it suits him, especially in matters of racial equality. He and Richard Jenkins’ Senator Russell speak candidly about their feelings on black Americans, usually when a black waiter or housekeeper is in the vicinity, almost invisible to them – that is of course, until LBJ starts to see the good in the man who bested him in the Presidential election. By the time the shots are fired and Kennedy is pronounced dead, we’ve been painted an intimate portrait of a loud-mouthed asshole who’s been forced to introspect by a new generation, even though doing so requires ice cream and bourbon. (Oh yeah, LBJ is the kind of movie that has no qualms about turning its titular President into a moody teen)
The irony of Johnson ceasing to covet the throne only to have it thrust on him by Lee Harvey Oswald is not lost on the incoming POTUS, but it’s an awkward, burdensome position that sees his very principles dragged into the spotlight. Once resigned to the kind of man he was, and the kind of conversations he would have with Russell, the Presidency presents him with the unique opportunity to make tangible personal change – the problem is, the change is so drastic that no matter how genuine, he wears it like an ill-fitting glove.
Whatever Johnson’s final legacy, whether helping African Americans secure their civil rights or living in another man’s shadow, LBJ presents us with a man stumbling endlessly on his way to self-improvement, and there’s something quite touching about that. Everyone around him recognizes the repetitiveness in his attempt to reach out to them, as if authentic kindness is a language he’s just learning to speak and he must now adopt the expected larger-than-life cadence of a subject of a film such as this, but his true change comes in the form of those personal conversations behind closed doors, where the tone of what he’s saying remains as crass as ever, but the content undoubtedly improves.
While it certainly could not feel more low-stakes in our expanding media landscape – white dudes examining their racial biases no longer feels interesting as a straightforward narrative – it does manage to entertain just enough. LBJ is hardly a life-changing cinematic event, but maybe the idea that kind of shitty people can sort of change for the better is a worthwhile reminder at this point in time. It’s the bare minimum, but then again so is every first step.