Friday, November 3, 2017

Movie with Abe: LBJ

Directed by Rob Reiner
Released November 3, 2017

The United States has had forty-four different presidents, and regardless of how the public has or does feel about them, their stories have become a part of history. There’s no surprise that many books and films have been made dramatizing their lives. In addition to profiling different men from assorted places and eras, these adaptations also have a choice of how much of the president’s term or life to cover. Lyndon Baines Johnson, the thirty-sixth president of the United States, has been portrayed in many films, and now he’s back in a story that spotlights his rise in the shadow of the man whose assassination elevated him to the highest office in the country.

LBJ (Woody Harrelson) is introduced as the most powerful man in the Senate, strong-arming others to ensure that his legislation is passed while continually denying that he will run for president. When he finally does decide to run, he finds it difficult to best the far more likeable John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), who opts to ask him to be his running mate against the advice of his brother and right-hand man Bobby (Michael Stahl-David). When he takes on a role devoid of power in the White House, LBJ finds himself in a unique position to understand the progressive Kennedy administration and the more conservative South he calls home, something that becomes even more critical when he takes the oath of office and is sworn in as the new president.

The last major film about a president, “Lincoln,” approached its subject with a narrow focus, his work on the passage of the thirteenth amendment. “LBJ” presents its protagonist as someone used to getting his way who is beginning to realize that he is part of the old guard. His past is glossed over, and his wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) doesn’t play much of a part in the film’s narrative. Instead, it’s his relationship with the Kennedy brothers, a Texas senator (Bill Pullman), and a Georgia senator (Richard Jenkins) that take center stage. It feels like LBJ is a supporting player in his own story, or at least this chapter, with the eras in which he figured more prominently left for further historical research for viewers whose interest is piqued by what’s not shown in the film.

Harrelson is an actor whose demeanor and style of speaking are distinctive, and, despite the layers of his makeup that add weight to his face and chin so that he might resemble the considerably bulkier LBJ, it’s hard to recognize anyone other than Harrelson himself in this performance. It’s an entertaining portrayal nonetheless, but it doesn’t feel like the transformation it should (he’s far better in next week’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). Jenkins plays his part well, and Stahl-David infuses Bobby with a wonderful combative energy that makes him very watchable. Director Rob Reiner made a great movie about a fictional American president two decades ago, and this film doesn’t feel nearly as fresh or involving. Its title feels like a misnomer as well, since this is hardly the sum of LBJ’s legacy or its most interesting excerpt.


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