Director Rob Reiner’s “LBJ”, starring Woody Harrelson, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in Sept. 2016. That was just a few months after HBO aired its highly-acclaimed film “All the Way”, with Bryan Cranston as President Johnson and a few months before “Jackie”, the Jacqueline Kennedy biopic hit theaters. If yet another movie involving our 36th President had been released late last year, it certainly would’ve gotten overlooked.
Instead, more than a year later, “LBJ” is finally in theaters, distributed by small studio Electric Entertainment. It’s a shame this film is still unlikely to get much attention. It’s an impressive, grounded look at an underappreciated leader, thrust into a thankless position during a pivotal time in our nation’s history.
“LBJ” takes place from 1959-’63. Reiner scatters the timeline a bit early on, flashing back and forth to establish both Johnson’s powerful role in the U.S. Senate and outsider status in his relationship with White House predecessor John F. Kennedy and brother Bobby. Following JFK’s assassination, Johnson is thrust into the role of Commander in Chief. Here’s when we really get to know this man, as he weighs a critical decision that will shape the future of the country.
Harrelson has starred or co-starred in a half dozen 2017 films. He was in top form in “War for the Planet of the Apes”, “The Glass Castle” and “Lost in London” (the “live” film project which he also wrote and directed). But his performance here as Johnson is the best of the group.
Reiner and Harrelson give us a Johnson who’s easily relatable. He’s a hard-ass, powerful politician, but is also haunted by feelings of rejection, loneliness and grief. And as a Southerner, he’s deeply conflicted about Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act, which he knows he needs to champion, even if it goes against beliefs he’s held since childhood.
The script does over-simplify the events and political wranglings of this tumultuous period, but that’s okay. Much like Johnson himself, “LBJ” is very matter of fact. This allows us to appreciate Harrelson’s work and that of the supporting cast, without the burden of the tangled and often confusing narratives present in many political movies. Richard Jenkins as Senator Richard Russell, one of Johnson’s longtime Southern allies, Bill Pullman as Senator Ralph Yarborough, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as an almost unrecognizable “Lady Bird” Johnson are all standouts.
With Election Day nearly upon us, here’s a film that’s worthy of your support.