All the Way
Directed by: Jay Roach.
Written by: Robert Schenkkan based on his play.
Starring: Bryan Cranston (Lyndon B. Johnson), Anthony Mackie (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Bradley Whitford (Hubert Humphrey), Melissa Leo (Lady Bird Johnson), Stephen Root (J. Edgar Hoover), Ray Wise (Everett Dirksen), Frank Langella (Sen. Richard Russell), Ethan Phillips (Joe Alsop), Joe Morton (Roy Wilkins), Toby Huss (Governor Johnson), Ken Jenkins (Rep. 'Judge' Smith), Aisha Hinds (Fannie Lou Hamer), Spencer Garrett (Walter Reuther).
Watching the excellent HBO movie All the Way, I couldn’t help think of another recent biopic about a US President – Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Both films decide to take a look at only one time in their subjects lives – no well-meaning, but dull scenes of their childhood, no rise from obscurity, etc. – but rather look at the way both men navigated a very tricky moment in their Presidency – and in America history – for the betterment of the country as a whole. Lincoln looked at the President as he – and others – teamed up to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery. All the Way takes place almost 100 years later, as it begins in the moments after Johnson is sworn in as President, following the assassination of JFK, and ends a year later with Johnson winning the 1964 Presidential election. In the year in between, Johnson, like Lincoln before him, will do anything to get the Civil Rights Bill, passed through the House and the Senate. All the Way isn’t as good as Lincoln was – few political biopics are (few have a director as great as Spielberg, a screenwriter as good as Tony Kushner, an actor as good as Daniel Day-Lewis, or a subject as good as Abraham Lincoln, so perhaps it’s not fair to compare) – but it is another in a long line of great, political movies made by HBO. Two of those were directed by Jay Roach, the same man who directed all the way (Game Change about the 2008 election and Recount about the 2000 election – expect one about the 2016 in 2019 or so). It benefits greatly by being based on a well-reviewed play, adapted by the playwright, Robert Schenkkan, himself – and starring the great Bryan Cranston, who won a Tony for the role on Broadway. Cranston would not have been the first actor I thought of to play LBJ – but it turns out to be the right one. Yes, he is slathered in makeup to make him look like the former President, and he has to adopt the exaggerated Texas drawl Johnson had (that would have been easy to overdo) – but he really does get to the heart of Johnson as the President and a person – both the good and the bad.
The movie depicts the difficult balancing act that Johnson was faced with when he took over the Presidency. Kennedy was a beloved figure in the country – but Johnson and Kennedy were very different men and politicians – Kennedy needed Johnson to help deliver the South, which he did, and Johnson needed Kennedy if he was going to be Vice President. With Kennedy gone, Johnson inherits a legislature agenda that includes The Civil Rights bill. Fellow Southern Democrats – which seems impossible today, but was the opposite at that time, think they know Johnson – that he’ll either kill or gut the bill. These are the so-called Dixiecrats – led by Senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella) – a personal friend of Johnson’s. The South always votes Democrat, and the South does not want this bill. Johnson will cave, right? But Johnson has pressure from the Liberal arm of the wing (Johnson sneers the word Liberal like he’s Fox News “analyst” in the film) – who desperately want it. And Martin Luther King (Anthony Mackie) is tired of waiting. King is pragmatic – much like Johnson is – and willing to compromise, but only so far. Like Johnson, King has different elements of his movement to try and appease.
It struck me while watching the film that this is the film all those people who had a hissy fit about Ava DuVernay’s great Selma, wanted that film to be. The problem they had with that film, is that they thought it downplayed Johnson’s contribution. I actually think the two films would make a very interesting double bill (and not just because one of the last things that happens in All the Way is King mentioning they’re on their way to Alabama – the start of Selma) – but because it shows the complicated relationship the two men had. They both needed each other, they both used each other – but I’m not sure they really liked each other. The portrait of LBJ in All the Way is obviously more sympathetic – the way he shoots down J. Edgar Hoover and his use of secret recordings of King (that Selma will imply Johnson used) for example. But I think the two films, together, show how two people can go through the same events, and have different interpretations of them. Selma is the better film – clearly – but All the Way adds some interesting stuff to the mix.
Clearly the main reason to see the film though is for Cranston. His performance as Johnson is, for the most part, very admiring of the President. Cranston clearly takes delight in Johnson’s colorful language, which he delivers with pure glee. The film does show some of the darker sides of Johnson – the way he snaps at underlings – and his own wife (Melissa Leo, fine in a role not worthy of her talent). The film stops short of showing Johnson as a racist himself – he never says the word nigger (I think, the heavily accented way he has negro isn’t always clear) – but he is clearly homophobic, in a weird subplot that doesn’t seem fully fleshed out (its here, one suspects, for 2016 reasons). But his performance is deeper than all the mannerisms and makeup – if it wasn’t, than it would be another entertaining caricature – like Liev Schreiber playing Johnson in Lee Daniels’ The Butler – but it’s not. It isn’t as good as another HBO LBJ – Michael Gambon’s inn John Frankenheimer’s under seen Path to War – but it’s a great performance just the same.