Rob Reiner’s LBJ is a type of movie I had hoped Hollywood was done with. It silences any and all black voices involved in getting civil rights passed. The result is an intensely mediocre and depressingly white and needlessly sanitized history lesson.
Rob Reiner is a talented director. He’s a director with great comedic talent who never feels chained by genre or budget. He helped create the mock documentary genre with This is Spinal Tap while also ushering in a new era of improv comedy. Reiner also co-wrote and directed one of the more perfect romantic comedies ever made, When Harry Met Sally. He’s even directed one of the few successful Stephen King adaptations with Misery.
So how is it his LBJ is so embarrassingly staged? Reiner has never been a stylistic director. His style is a classical “invisible” style; one where the story dictates the style not the personality of the director. Nevertheless, there are times when LBJ feels less like a movie and more like something produced by PBS. There’s a staged-ness to the whole affair that keeps us at arm’s length.
Most biopics have realized by now that it’s easier, and often times better, to focus on one event as opposed to the whole life of the subject. Reiner has chosen to do the same. But the point he’s focusing on is without any real dramatic weight because it’s so grossly overshadowed by the events to come. Reiner has chosen to focus on how President Lyndon Johnson dealt with the presidency after the assassination of JFK.
For a movie called LBJ, it spends quite a lot of time with people who aren’t Lyndon Baines Johnson (Woody Harrelson). We spend time with President Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and his brother the Attorney General Robert (Michael Stahl-David) as they talk about Johnson. There’s also time spent with Kennedy’s cabinet as they discuss how they feel about serving under Johnson.
To some extent it’s understandable why we get these points of view. But we spend so much time with them it’s never quite clear how Johnson went from being pro-segregation to becoming the one president in history to succeed where others had failed so spectacularly. It doesn’t help that LBJ feels compelled to jump back and forth in time between before and after President Kennedy was assassinated.
Joey Hartstone’s script gives us precious few moments of any kind of insight into Johnsosn’s legendary legislative ability. There’s a sense of a writer biting off more than he can chew running through most of LBJ. So much of LBJ is concerned with what Johnson will do. When it comes time to what he actually does his actions are relegated to montages.
This shackles what could clearly be one of the best performances by Harrelson. Reiner’s blocking and Harstone’s lack of a spine or point of view leaves Harrelson adrift with little to play with or do. Johnson is a charismatic, vulgar, loud, bombastic, yet gentle individual. He’s a Texan.
We are given flashes of what might have been. Scenes of Johnson holding court while he takes a dump in his office bathroom are a rare treat in a movie so earnestly dull. Reiner and company even found time to include the now semi-infamous phone call between Johnson and his tailor. Befitting the rest of LBJ, they somehow bungle even this wonderful historic gem.
Harrelson plays Johnson under a latex mask that seems to hamper his abilities instead of enhance them. Still there’s a wonderful sense of insecurity and vulnerability about Harrelson’s Johnson mixed with a pugnacious Southerner’s ability to talk you into a compromise. Yet he’s never able to overcome the appearance of a performance.
Oliver Stone’s Nixon explored the complex paranoid psychosis of one of our most complex presidents. Reiner attempts to do the same but stumbles from lack of nerve. Take the scenes where Johnson commiserates with his wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh). For an actress as talented and capable as Leigh, it’s astonishing how little Hartstone and Reiner give her to do.
Lady Bird seems to have no thoughts or opinions of her own. She is doomed to float around endlessly in the background. They discuss how fearful Johnson is of the awesome responsibilities of the office. Except these scenes are largely one sided. Lady Bird’s entire role is to soothe and coo over Johnson and his insecurities. They never discuss how Lady Bird feels about Johnson taking up the Civil Rights Act or much of anything else.
I haven’t even broached the absolute lack of any sort of black agency in the matter of the Civil Rights Act. If LBJ is to be believed, Johnson’s sole reason and purpose for jamming the bill through congress was so the President Kennedy’s ‘dream may become a reality.’ This is classic white liberal racism at it’s peak finest.
The notion that President Kennedy wanted to pass Civil Rights because it was immoral to do otherwise is at best a fairy tale notion. At worst it is a gross simplification of history. The likes of Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless other black activists don’t even rate a mention. Martin Luther King, Jr. alone scores a name drop but nothing else is even mentioned.
Black protesters and activists are treated as a mere afterthought. Reiner shows us actual footage of the Freedom Riders as well as the sit-ins and other protests. But they are shown in the context of these events happening separately. There is no sense of black activism in any way influencing these white legislators.
All of this is compounded by the heavy handed melodramatic laden hand that Reiner waves about the story. He and his cameraman Barry Markowitz have stumbled into some kind of cinematic limbo. They straddle this bizarre chasm of being neither functional nor visually appealing. LBJ is at times an oddly clumsy and ugly film to look at.
Still, there is some good to be found in LBJ. Harrelson is at the center of most of it. Johnson’s conversations with Senator Russell (Richard Jenkins) are bright spots both intellectually and dramatically. Jenkins and Harrelson play off each other wonderfully as each tries to understand where the other one is coming from. There is an especially powerful scene where Russel and Johnson essentially end their friendship in the Oval Office.
Unfortunately it is under so much rot that it’s almost not worth digging through to get to it. LBJ commits three grave sins. 1.) It leaves us no more familiar with Lyndon Baines Johnson than we were at the beginning. 2.) LBJ silences black voices in the role of their own advancement to favor the white voices that had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything. 3.) It saves all the really interesting facts about Johnson for the text crawl at the end.
We’re left wondering, “Well why didn’t they make a movie about that!?” Considering President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicaid, Medicare, the Head Start Program, and got us embroiled in the Vietnam War, it’s a fair question.