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.

One review

  • 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.”

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