(2017) (Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh) (R)
- QUICK TAKE:
- Drama: A longtime politician strives to be elected President of the U.S. and must then contend with being suddenly thrust into that position following an assassination.
- As the story jumps around from 1959 to 1963, we follow the path of politician Lyndon B. Johnson (WOODY HARRELSON) as he attempts -- with his wife, Lady Bird (JENNIFER JASON LEIGH), by his side -- to move from Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate to being the Democratic nominee for the 1960 Presidential election. But he must contend with frontrunner John F. Kennedy (JEFFREY DONOVAN) and not being liked by that man's Attorney General brother, Robert F. Kennedy (MICHAEL STAHL-DAVID), who sees Johnson as a relic from the past. That's unlike Senator Russell (RICHARD JENKINS) from the South who wants the past to remain as the present and is vehemently against the Civil Rights movement the Kennedys fully support and are trying to turn into law.
When Kennedy wins the primary and selects Johnson as his running mate and that ticket wins the general election, Lyndon must contend with his diminished role in politics as the Vice-President. With RFK's friend Kenny O'Donnell (MICHAEL MOSLEY) serving as the liaison between JFK and Johnson, Lyndon attempts to leverage his experience and connections on Capitol Hill to his advantage and thus make himself relevant as the battle for Civil Rights heats up. But when the president is assassinated, he must contend with suddenly being thrust into the position of the most powerful man in the world.
- OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
- Many, many (did I mention many) moons ago I worked for more than a decade for the U.S. Senate. While the "world's greatest deliberative body" had finally been dragged around that time kicking and screaming into the 20th century (with the introduction of live TV coverage of Senate floor proceedings and then committee hearings), it was always fun to hear the stories of old from the old timers there.
One of them, which I could never believe, was that a certain powerful U.S. Senator would conduct open door meetings with staff and others while doing his business seated on the toilet. Beyond the obvious scatological requirements and ramifications, it simply sounded rude, condescending and a power play over those who had to take in every sensory aspect of that.
That senator was Lyndon B. Johnson, the Majority Leader of the Senate, a man who was obviously long gone from that body before I arrived in 1987, but his legend lived on. So much so that such a scene exists in Rob Reiner's latest film about the divisive politician during a divisive time in American history, the simply titled "LBJ."
And had you told me back in the '80s that a TV actor -- made famous during that era for playing a dimwitted TV bartender -- would be portraying the 36th President of the United States, I would have found that as far-fetched as the toilet meeting scenario. And yet the film opens with The Honorable Mr. Woodrow Huckleberry Tiberius "Woody" Boyd -- a.k.a. Woody Harrelson - as that man in Dallas, Texas on a late November day being snubbed by crowds wanting to see President John F. Kennedy.
Working from a script by Joey Hartstone, Reiner (who's delved into D.C. politics before with "The American President") then has the film bounce back to before the Democratic primary for the 1960 presidential election. At that point, Johnson is the tough, brash and sometimes obscene Majority Leader contemplating a run for the party nomination despite the growing popularity of a certain fellow but much younger and more progressive senator from Massachusetts (played here by Jeffrey Donovan).
While Donovan doesn't make much of a believable JFK (he's not horrible, it's just extremely difficult to recreate such an iconic figure), Harrelson completely disappears into the role thanks in part to some terrific makeup but also a brilliant performance by the actor (who's previously similarly disappeared while playing notable figures such as Larry Flynt).
Simply put, you quickly forget you're watching the famous actor as the story unfolds over 97-some minutes and one shouldn't be surprised if the former "Cheers" star gets some end-of-the-season awards love (and maybe his third Oscar nomination and second in the lead role -- following playing the lead character in "The People vs. Larry Flynt).
I just wish the film overall was as good as the central performance. It's not bad by any means and Hartstone gives the actor some brief but great speeches and other moments of dialogue that truly shine in a way Academy Award voters -- and critics and general moviegoers -- really seem to love. The biggest issue would seem to be that the film's length simply doesn't provide enough time to examine the character and the times in which he was operating in enough depth.
The story bounces back and forth between the moments leading up to the fateful drive through Dealey Plaza and those back during the 1960 election and subsequent few years following the Democratic victory where Johnson tried to retain as much power as possible in the power-diminished role as VP. That's complicated by Bobby Kennedy -- played by Michael Stahl-David -- trying to undermine or at least diminish his role every step of the way and Richard Jenkins playing a southern senator none too happy with LBJ rocking the racial segregation boat.
But with the now-canceled and slickly produced "House of Cards" Netflix program showcasing the ruthless maneuvering of political figures seeking even greater power, what happens here feels somewhat quaint in comparison (and Lady Bird -- as accurately portrayed as the behind the scenes, supportive wife by Jennifer Jason Leigh -- certainly won't be confused with Robin Wright's character from that TV show).
So, in the end, we get a great, award-worthy performance and some decent dialogue in an otherwise truncated feeling movie. It's certainly worth seeing for Harrelson's transformation, but I doubt voters (of the movie award variety) will put this on the ballot for best movie of the year. "LBJ" rates as a 6 out of 10.
Reviewed October 31, 2017 / Posted November 3, 2017
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