Those of us who are of a certain age well remember the early sixties, marked by the Kennedy (JFK) years, his assassination and the installation of Kennedy’s vice-president Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) as the next American president. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination Johnson focused on the passing of the Civil Rights Act, something which Kennedy had wanted but did not achieve.
The lead up to the passing of this Act is at the heart of this movie. It does not cover LBJ’s later political life other than in a few typewritten screen-shots at the end. Making a biopic of LBJ which excludes the mess he made of the war in Vietnam could well be considered as an attempt to salvage his tarnished reputation.
The various reactions of the major players at the time of JFK’s assassination and LBJ’s swearing-in as President are sensitively handled. This is followed by plenty of coverage of meetings in traditionally smoke-filled rooms where many of the eventual decisions were made.
Despite the prosthetics applied to Woody Harrelson’s face he does not really look like LBJ but this does not detract from a convincing interpretation of him as a hard foul-mouthed man, who did not take fools lightly, and the political trade-offs he made to pass legislation.
However how and why this Texan politician changed from a man who was a committed segregationist to a president who pushed so passionately for a great change in US domestic policy is not made clear enough. Was he really motivated by a desire for social justice, or was it politically expedient?
Jennifer Jason Leigh portrays Lady Bird Johnson as the supportive wife who casts light on LBJ’s emotional turmoil. And the thorny interactions between Johnson and the liberal Robert Kennedy and the relationship between LBJ and the conservative Senator Richard Russell who opposed the Civil Rights Act are also illuminating.
But less of LBJ holding forth in his bullish way and more coverage of the opinions of those who surrounded him would have helped to clarify his motives. However, despite its shortcomings I found this biopic an interesting look into the powerful way LBJ managed to push through a piece of legislation which was a turning point in American history.