LBJ (2016)

  • Time: 98 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama
  • Director: Rob Reiner
  • Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bill Pullman, Richard Jenkins


LBJ centers on the political upheaval that Vice President Johnson faced when he was thrust into the presidency at the hands of an assassin’s bullet in November 1963. With political battles on both sides of the aisle, Johnson struggles to heal a nation and secure his presidency by passing Kennedy’s historic Civil Rights Act.


  • There are three time schemes in this historical study of Lyndon Johnson, from his campaign against John Kennedy for the Democrat nomination, through Kennedy’s assassination to Johnson’s adoption and realization of Kennedy’s civil rights platform.
    Two are explicit. Director Rob Reiner intercuts (i) Johnson’s and Kennedy’s path from rivals to partners with (ii) Kennedy’s fatal 1963 visit to Dallas and Johnson’s succession not just to the office but to Kennedy’s civil rights cause. The effect is to keep us reading each earlier moment, action, speech, in the context of the larger tragic arc of the assassination.
    On this level the film dramatizes both presidents’ remarkable intelligence, skills, and savvy. At first Kennedy seems to be the more idealistic, but Bobby’s treatment of Johnson reduces the Kennedy family to the Lyndon level of political guile and manipulation. With Kennedy’s death Johnson reveals a surprising sensitivity, generosity and understanding of his larger responsibilities.
    In Johnson’s terms, the film celebrates the effective superiority of the humble work-horse over the show-horse. Kennedy may have initiated the civil rights act but only Johnson could have realized it.
    Reiner clearly intends to valorize Johnson, warts and all. We get a full taste of his vulgarity, profanity, slickness of machination, macho vanity, pragmatism and egotism. Nothing about Johnson is as pretty as the Kennedys. But he matures into the champion of democracy that the times required.
    He is also surprisingly knowledgeable, continually citing historic record — as well as personal anecdotes — to advance his position. However rough hewn Johnson’s manner, he is neither foolish nor ignorant.
    Reiner frames out Johnson’s own racist record, his compromised relationship with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (especially as they undermined Martin Luther King Jr) and his misjudgments on Viet Nam, which ultimately led to his departure. In short, Reiner prefers to emphasize the civil rights champion Johnson became rather than define him by his earlier folly.
    It’s the third time scheme that makes this film much more powerful and important than its value as a record of history. This film is implicitly but clearly about America and the presidency today. Kennedy and Johnson both stand as a reminder of what American presidents have been and must be, in implicit contrast to the present occupant of the White House.
    In every virtue Johnson reminds us of what Trump lacks: his knowledge, his self-discipline, his submission to the nation’s highest ideals and needs, his compassion, his sensitivity to others, his political engagement and effectiveness. Reiner’s Johnson is a rallying cry for the Democrats to unite to restore then nation’s honour and the office’s character.
    The film takes place only 60 years ago, but it reminds us of the huge progress the political scene has made since then. As the film tacitly reminds us, there were neither women nor African Americans in the government of Kennedy’s and Johnson’s day. Johnson had to fight even to get recognition due a woman judge. This, of course, represents the historic progress that Trump is determined to reverse throughout his government to make America what he perversely considers “great again.”

  • There are films that don’t necessarily reach artistic heights but are effective nonetheless. Rob Reiner’s LBJ is one such film. Its narrative is traditional and fairly by-the-numbers, but it gets the job done and very well at that, offering an intriguing portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who was the work-horse to John F. Kennedy’s show-horse.

    Covering the moments leading up to LBJ’s inheriting the burden of the American presidency from the assassinated Kennedy as well as the period of time when LBJ transitioned from Senate Majority Leader to Vice President, the meat of Joey Hartstone’s screenplay is the shifting dynamics between LBJ and three particular men, JFK (Jeffrey Donovan), RFK (Michael Stahl-David), and friend and Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins). Before the film fully focuses on those relationships, Reiner establishes LBJ as an ornery man, the type to demand exactitude from an underling who provides him with an approximate number of votes he can expect to get for a bill and tell off fellow Texan Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman) by saying, “The only thing more annoying than a liberal is a liberal from Texas.” Yet, LBJ is also the sort to worry about the public’s opinion of him, especially since he’s about to throw his hat in the ring for the presidency and his main rival is the young and telegenic JFK.

    LBJ doesn’t quite understand why being the most intelligent and hardworking person wouldn’t immediately garner his party’s nomination. Initially, he maintains that nominations aren’t won on the campaign trail but rather on the convention floor but he’s devastated when JFK wins the nomination. He’s not particularly chomping at the bit when JFK discusses the vice presidency; neither is RFK, who points out that LBJ hasn’t exactly been a proponent of the civil rights movement and would therefore not give JFK’s civil rights bill the push it needs in order to become law. However, what RFK fails to realise and what JFK is savvy enough to acknowledge is that LBJ can work both sides of the aisle, appealing to the vehement Northern Dems and the more conservative Southern Dems. LBJ himself knows he’s the only one capable of having both sides compromise in order to get the bill through, and witnessing him convince both hardcore good ole boys like Russell and the liberal Kennedys to yield bit by bit is exciting stuff.

    Though staging and execution are flat, LBJ works because of Harrelson’s excellent performance, which overcomes the all-too-obvious layers of prosthetics, and Hartstone’s willingness to leave LBJ’s motivations slightly ambivalent. Was he truly committed to propagate Kennedy’s liberal agenda because he believed in it or was his commitment borne out of his political shrewdness? It’s easy enough to believe that he respected and admired JFK though they necessarily didn’t share the same values, but was his motivation for pushing through JFK’s civil rights bill as is, no cuts or compromises, derived from a duty he felt for his fallen colleague or was it a way to curry favour from the American public? One never gets a definitive answer, but whatever LBJ’s genuine incentives, there’s no denying that he achieved a great deal during his tenure, including implementing the domestic program known as the Great Society, which encompassed Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start.

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