(director:Rob Reiner; screenwriter: Joey Hartstone; cinematographer: Barry Markowitz; editor: Bob Joyce; music: Marc Shaiman; cast: Woody Harrelson (Lyndon B. Johnson), Jennifer Jason Leigh(Lady Bird Johnson), Richard Jenkins (Senator Russell), Bill Pullman(Ralph Yarborough), Kim Allen (Jackie Kennedy), Michael Stahl-David(Robert Kennedy), Jeffrey Donovan (JFK), Doug McKeon (Hubert Humphery), Michael Mosley (Kenny O’Donnell), Margo Moorer (Black Cook); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Matthew George, Liz Glotzer, Rob Reiner, Tim White, Trevor White, Michael R. Williams; Electric Entertainment/Castle Rock Entertainment; 2017)
“Simplistic look back at history.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director Rob Reiner (“Shock And Awe”/”Being Charlie”) revisits the legacy of LBJ (Woody Harrelson) in this wax-museum piece telling of how the ambitious and powerful majority leader in the senate sought the Democrat nomination for president and lost to JFK (Jeffrey Donovan, in a weak portrayal of the president), only to become president in November 1963 after the assassination. Needing someone from the south to balance the ticket, JFK chose the Texas senator, someone both he and his brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David) detested, to be his Vice President.
Under Reiner’s simplistic look back at history and the sketchy character-like screenplay for the biopic by Joey Hartstone, the much maligned LBJ is seen through more tender eyes even when he became the Viet Nam War president because he pushed through Kennedy’s Civil Rights agenda. He’s painted here with a more humanitarian brush, by someone unwilling to examine in depth his subject’s great faults–who was considered by many the worst modern president until along came Nixon.
You can’t convince me that a lifelong bigot like LBJ, mentored by the racist Senator Russell (Richard Jenkins) of Georgia, changed his stripes. I lived through the ugly Johnson administration and was one of those protesters in the streets asking ‘How many babies did you kill today, LBJ?’
Though Harrelson, under heavy prosthetics and make-up, makes for a fine snarling, bullying and narcissistic LBJ, the film tells me nothing new about him. Rather than stimulating me to see the light that Johnson wasn’t such a bad president because of his social programs, it falls short on reporting the harm done to the country by this obtuse and insecure president.
Reiner is too lightweight of a filmmaker and too much a liberal apologist to find a clear and distinct voice to make this historical film relevant or into a satire, as it appallingly attempts to paint an unwarranted sympathetic portrait of Johnson. In a thankless role, where she’s asked to do little, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Lady Bird, the wife who counsels the president and keeps him in check with her outdated conventions.
REVIEWED ON 11/6/2017 GRADE: C https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/