Reel Dad: All the Way brings LBJ to the HBO screen

Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way.

Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way.

As a politician, Lyndon B. Johnson rarely met an adversary he didn’t try to charm or a conflict he couldn’t work to resolve. While his hunger for compromise may have fueled his ambition, his need for approval might have diminished his impact. But in 1963 – shortly after inheriting the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy – Johnson worked his magic in every direction he selected. Because, for a short time, everyone would listen (and most would act) when he spoke.

Looking back, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed the conversation about race in America as much as it changed its laws. On paper, the act dared to outlaw discrimination because of race or color, religion or sex, or national origin. In the homes and churches of the South, however, efforts to pass the law brought fundamental change to how people dared to treat each other. Politically, for Democrats, the act brought an end to its power in the South; for the Democratic President, the effort to pass the law gave him a reason to fight for his power.

On stage, Robert Schenkkan’s study of LBJ’s first year in office – during which he searched for ways to become relevant to the nation he now led – brought a driving energy to the political battles this master of process waged. Led by a Tony-winning performance from Bryan Cranston, the show sizzled with excitement as Johnson, his wife, supporters and enemies tried to position themselves before the 1964 election. And, amidst all this hoopla, the nation’s accidental leader actually tried to do something that would last.

As dynamically as this story played on stage, its translation to film reveals strengths and weaknesses. While the theater thrives on illusions, film is a medium of reality or, at best, perceived reality. While LBJ’s larger-than-life personality can easily fill a live theater, its lack of subtlety could be too much for the intimacy of a camera. And while a theatrical audience expects to follow the intricacies of dialogue, the movie audience – especially when watching from home – can easily do a few things at once. So moviemakers have to consider changes that theatrical creators may not have to consider.

Such concessions in All the Way diminish its impact on screen. The rapid sequences that electrify on stage can confuse on screen because writer Schenkkan and director Jay Roach don’t adjust the pace for the change of medium. The characters that create a parade of transition on stage can mystify on screen because there isn’t enough time to develop their points of view. And the moments that create magical silence in the theater can bring the film to a halt when the camera stops moving without clear reason.

No matter the challenges in moving the film from stage to screen, Bryan Cranston’s landmark performance successfully withstands the change. Rather than simply repeat his stage portrayal, Cranston rethinks the performance to make more of the silent moments when his facial expressions fill the screen. He brilliantly resizes the portrait to create a man as fearful of the silence as he is of rejection. This LBJ becomes a hero to those who believe in him, a nuisance to those who disagree, and a mystery to those who watch. And the movie makes us want to watch as much as we can.

 All the Way

  • Content: High. This fascinating look at the political maneuvering of President Lyndon B. Johnson recreates an era of significant change in race relations in the US.
  • Entertainment: High. Thanks to Bryan Cranston’s fascinating portrayal of LBJ, the film brings a controversial character and a milestone period to life.
  • Message: Medium. The shift from stage to screen dilutes the impact of Robert Schenkkan’s meaningful message about the power of politicians to lead real change.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to return to a time when leaders dared to be heroes is welcome at any time, especially during an election year.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. As a recreation of an important time in US history, All the Way offers a lot to talk for you to discuss with older children.

Rating: 4 Popcorn Buckets

(All the Way runs 132 minutes. It is rated TV-14 and is showing on HBO and HBO Go. Read about other films about politicians in Arts and Leisure Online.)

 

How Movies Love Politicians

The insights of All the Way remind us of the many memorable films that highlight the

work of politicians, actual and fictional. Here are a few of the best.

Lincoln (2012)

Much like All the Way, Steven Spielberg’s look at the work of the 16 th US President

focuses on a specific chapter in the leader’s life as he tries to navigate the passage of the 13 th

Amendment to the US Constitution. Daniel Day Lewis won a well deserved Oscar for his complex

portrayal of a man aware of his limitations, respectful of his enemies and fearful of the passage

of time without change.

Give ‘em Hell, Harry (1975)

Much like All the Way, this stage play recreates a particular moment in a President’s life

when Harry S. Truman battles Thomas E. Dewey for the Presidency in 1948. James Whitmore

was nominated for an Oscar for recreating his acclaimed role from the theatrical production.

And while the film is, simply, a recording of a stage performance, the power of Whitmore’s

performance reaches through the camera to create a memorable movie experience.

Selma (2014)

While All the Way portrays an LBJ who is authentically interested in changing how the

races relate to each other, this film by Ava DuVernay dares to offer a different interpretation of

a leader without real interest in supporting real progress. As it recreates the marches in

Alabama in 1965 that were intended to raise awareness of voting rights discrepancies, the

movie reminds us that any moment in history is open to interpretation, as are any of its more

exaggerated characters.

Thirteen Days (2000)

Anyone of a certain age can remember the tense days of the early 1960s when the US

and the Soviet Union played a dangerous game of cat and nuclear mouse. This fascinating look

at the thinking of John F. Kennedy begs to ask if this youthful leader demonstrated real maturity

in looking at this potential conflict beyond its obvious causes and solutions. Bruce Greenwood is

a believable President while Kevin Costner scores as aide Kenneth O’Donnell.

Sunrise at Campobello (1960)

Long before he became President, Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrated real heroism by

staging a personal fight against paralysis at age 39. Based on the play by Dore Schary, the movie

takes a close look at the challenges of the disease, the personal impact of health care despair,

and the pressure on family and friends. Ralph Bellamy recreates his theatrical performance as

FDR while Greer Garson won an Oscar nomination as a brave Eleanor Roosevelt.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

While recreating decades of social change – through the administrations of several US

Presidents – Lee Daniels’ popular film focuses on a White House butler who touches many

moments and people through eight administrations. Although some of the actors who play

Presidents appear for a matter of minutes, others find their rhythm despite the brevity,

especially John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Look for Oprah Winfrey in a strong supporting role.

Nixon (1995)

As fascinating as Anthony Hopkins may be in his portrayal of this tragic politician, the

film from director Oliver Stone soars over the top in its accusations and assumptions. No matter

what the President experienced at the end of his term, the real facts likely can’t compare to the

reel situations that Stone imagines. Amidst all this exaggeration, including Hopkins in the title

role, Joan Allen delivers a remarkably sharp portrayal of First Lady Pat Nixon.

As we look at LBJ in All the Way, these films from the Hollywood archives remind us how

the camera can be fascinated with people who seek the ultimate political power.

See you at the movies.

 

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