Director Rob Reiner’s “LBJ,” starring Woody Harrelson facially encased in latex and makeup best categorized as a good try, arrives in theaters a year after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere, and 16 months after “All the Way” (Bryan Cranston reprising his juicy Tony Award-winning performance) debuted on HBO.
The timing puts this latest LBJ screen portrait at a disadvantage. It’s a passably engaging biopic focusing on a few short and hugely eventful years in the life of the 36th U.S. president. But it wouldn’t raise questions about Harrelson’s prostheses and makeup, for starters, if the drama carried more urgency.
HBO’s “All the Way” began with Johnson’s momentous Nov. 27, 1963, address to Congress, five days after the JFK assassination. “LBJ” uses that speech, part eulogy and part declaration of civil rights principles, as a climax, not a prologue. The script by Joey Hartstone returns to the assassination at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, over and over, as a motif, while focusing on Johnson’s vice presidency under Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan, all lockjaw vowel sounds, every second). The film’s especially harsh in its portrayal of attorney general Robert F. Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) as a steely weasel of an operator, initially uncomprehending of Johnson’s usefulness.
Here’s what you don’t get in “LBJ.” You don’t get any conspiracy theories regarding the assassination. You don’t get more than a muttered sentence or two about the war in Vietnam (Johnson’s ultimate political undoing). What you get is a straightfoward, frustratingly mild portrait of a big man who, in “Hamilton”-speak, wanted to be in the room where it happened, but who really just wanted to be loved and respected.
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“Nominations are not won on the campaign trail. They are won on the convention floor!” Harrelson thunders at one point early on, thus proving how wrong Johnson could be. The dialogue frequently falls out of the mouths of the actors like blocks of wooden irony. Most successfully, although confined to the edges of the screenplay, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lady Bird Johnson suggests several sides of her character simultaneously: comforter, manipulator and dimensional human being. “You knew what you wanted,” she tells her insecure husband at one point. “And you got it.”
Decked out in the requisite lobe job, hairline and horn rims, Harrelson valiantly creates a performance halfway between impersonation and suggestion. He’s often touching, and he clearly enjoys the ribald side of Johnson (as did Cranston in “All the Way”). Johnson was, in his own words, the only politician in Washington fluent in the languages of both Kennedy and Dixiecrat. Richard Jenkins sidles up to the role of Johnson’s longtime crony, Democratic U.S. Sen. (and former governor) Richard Russell of Georgia. “LBJ” uses their evolving relationship for a good deal of screenwriter acreage, with Johnson trying to drag Russell and his segregation-minded constituents into the 1960s and a more equal society.
It’s fun to watch Jenkins and Harrelson lock horns over drinks and dinner and good ol’ boy conversation. But it’s unmistakable: Jenkins (though a little light and wobbly on the dialect) relaxes into an easy-breathing performance. Harrelson never quite gets there; he’s locked inside a second-rate makeup job, and all too aware of expectations involving the portrayal of an extremely famous figure. Those naturally wide eyes of Harrelson’s are a long way from the scowly LBJ squint, the one that revealed a politico of wily resolve and charismatic duplicity. Reiner goes in for a bit of that, but only a bit.
Reiner, Hartstone and Harrelson have already reunited on a more recent political story, a film titled “Shock and Awe” about the Knight Ridder journalists who questioned George W. Bush’s weapons of mass destruction claims in the 2003 sprint to war in Iraq. Here’s hoping that project, now on the festival circuit, is a more distinctive movie than “LBJ.”
Rated: R for language. Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Woody Harrelson, Bill Pullman. Director: Rob Reiner. Running time: 98 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 12.