Whatever else you say about Woody Harrelson, you must say this: He makes eclectic choices in movies.
In just the past year, he’s appeared in “The Edge of Seventeen,” “Wilson,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “The Glass Castle” and now the title role in “LBJ.” His quirkiness underlines each role—but to this one he also brings his Texas roots.
Harrelson was born in Texas. His late father, Charles, was a hit man (sentenced to life in prison for killing a judge) who once famously lied that he killed President John F. Kennedy.
So Harrelson has a head start on—and dubious connection to— this story. He’s surprisingly effective in the role of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States.
This is a Rob Reiner-directed film and there’s a gentleness and sense of humanity in everything he does. When you consider Reiner’s previous work—“The Princess Bride,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President,” “The Bucket List”—you realize that he, too, makes interesting choices.
Here, Reiner teaches a history lesson in a way that’s neither preachy nor heavy-handed; rather, it’s instructive and entertaining. This is not just a highly enjoyable movie, it’s an important one—a look at the behind-the-scenes machinations it took to make civil rights the law.
Kennedy may get the credit for the Civil Rights Act because he made the promise, but “you got your show horses and your workhorses,” Johnson says early in the movie, and he clearly was the workhorse. This is the story of how he got the job done.
We begin in Dallas, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day JFK (Jeffrey Donovan) is assassinated and Johnson thrust into a spotlight he never quite felt he deserved. Voice-over narration provides background on that time with an emphasis on the civil unrest and racial violence, especially in Johnson’s South.
Throughout the film, we’ll cut back and forth from the Dallas motorcade to the events and activities beginning four years before. We’ll see Johnson make backroom deals as majority leader of the Senate, lose the presidential nomination to Kennedy by convention ballot and struggle for relevance in his role as vice president.
We’ll watch him verbally disagree and duel with an annoying and naive Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), who had his brother’s ear, and with Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), the senator from Georgia who was both a racist and a dangerous man to alienate.
We’ll come to appreciate LBJ’s respect and admiration for JFK.
But beyond his foul-mouthed and street-smart public side, we’ll see a vulnerable man who, despite all his accomplishments, never really felt he was loved.
As Lady Bird, LBJ’s wife and confidante, Jennifer Jason Leigh shows a woman who’s strong, loyal and willing to listen. Leigh and Harrelson share some of the most emotional moments in the movie.
Donovan is smooth as JFK and Stahl-David is obnoxious as RFK. They’re polished, in contrast to Johnson’s rough-but-crucial pragmatism in those decisive years.
Although Reiner keeps the focus strongly on civil rights, he finds plenty of humor in the telling; his nonlinear approach also helps to hold interest. He seamlessly incorporates vintage news footage, including Walter Cronkite’s famous telecast, into his film.
It’s all an instructive look at the man history books often show as standing in Kennedy’s shadow, the man who escalated the Vietnam War and refused a nomination to be more than a one-term president. He was actually so much more.
Harrelson’s performance is the real joy here; he disappears fully into the title role. Makeup increases the size of his jowls and ears, and he’s bulked up a bit to approach Johnson’s girth, but he retains his mischievous eyes and sly grin. He’s having fun with this role.
He captures Johnson’s profane language, profound understanding and folksy way of speaking in parables. He shows LBJ as a smart and seasoned politician, wisely perceptive, taking the long-term view.
He got things done because he worked with people rather than ignoring or bullying them.
Could that approach ever work today?