As far as politicians go, Lyndon Baines Johnson was the boss hog. Just as he had in his days in the Senate, President Johnson would take to strong-arming his agenda past any suit unlucky enough to cross him, using everything from trapping folks in an elevator to whipping out his own President Johnson (aka “Jumbo”) and waving it at adversaries to imaginably stupefying effect.
Thankfully, there’s no appearances by the Executive Branch in All the Way, Jay Roach’s adaptation of the play by Robert Schenkkan, airing Saturday on HBO. The story follows Johnson, here played by Bryan Cranston, over his year-long “first term” as president, from Parkland in ‘63 to the polls in ‘64, mostly eyeing his role in passing the latter year’s Civil Rights Act. No shortage of gushing will be given to Cranston for “resurrecting” or “disappearing into” LBJ (he won a Tony for it on Broadway, and there’s no reason he won’t win another Emmy here), but it’s a fitting tribute for another reason. Out to give voice to every disparate shred of the Long Tall Texan’s legacy, All the Way ends up being a fascinating story undermined by its own compromises.
It shows in the homework Schenkkan’s obviously done. As a piece of historiography, All the Way is almost museum-level meticulous, kneading in every nugget an afternoon spent with an AP U.S. History textbook could unearth. There’s Jackie Kennedy seated at the back of Air Force One, still in her bloodied pink Chanel suit after the new president is sworn in. (“I want them to see what they’ve done to Jack,” she’s quoted.) There’s LBJ’s Amphicar, in which he’d treat terrified guests to convincing careens into the lake by his ranch. There’s Little Beagle Johnson, whose ears Mr. President caught flack for pulling even though, as we all know, “the lil’ sum’ bitch loves to have his ears pulled.”
Tidbits like these decorate the movie throughout, giving Cranston plenty of fodder to gobble up and roar over. What’s interesting is that such a portly portrait of the President would seem to perfectly remedy concerns over his last big portrayal, by Tom Wilkinson in Selma: too reluctant about civil rights, kind of a dick, and altogether a little boring.
As for his seeming reluctance, the counterargument has always been that, in fighting for civil rights, Johnson played to his strengths as a (startlingly endowed) politician, rather than play the part of activist. Given the exaltation heaped on the ideologically “pure” nowadays — better, the exaltation they heap on themselves — watching real deal-making in action is a little inspiring. Here, the snotty whole of Washington, no less factional in 1964, is fixing to quarter him over the bill. It’s in them, and how he muscles them all into shape, that All the Way shines strongest.
From the South, Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, Jr. (Frank Langella) leads the Dixiecrat coalition in trying to gut the measure. A dear friend of the Johnson’s, “Uncle Dick” has more of their loyalty than his crusade of hate might hint, and he’s made all the more fascinating as Langella leans into that evanescent Southern charm. “[It’s] the passing of a time of etiquette, of courtesy,” he laments in one of the movie’s many stage-starved and soaring monologues. He’s right, of course, just not in the way he thinks.
Much less cozy with the President is Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford, maybe in better disguise than even Cranston), representing the party’s liberal wing. A thin-skinned and antsy foil to the titanic Texan, Humphrey is one half of the president’s moral conscience, speaking out for the embattled bill to variable success. The other half, Anthony Mackie’s MLK, shows a quiet weariness for much the same reason, even a year before the march on Selma.
Meanwhile, figures like Robert McNamara (Bo Foxworth, with more of that magic makeup) and J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root) give screen time to Vietnam and COINTELPRO. (The latter sets up another history in-joke, with Johnson innocently asking Hoover how to spot a gay man.) While no less important to the era, they illuminate something of a selective quality to the movie’s historical fullness. Maddeningly underused, for example, is Melissa Leo as the much-maligned first lady. After she’s screamed out of the Oval Office by her husband in one scene, Lady Bird confides in aide Walter Jenkins (Todd Weeks) that “I see everything,” including her husband’s “lady friends.” All the questions that arise from those 90 seconds or so go poetically unanswered.
That’s all to say that, with so many palates to please, it’s really a wonder Johnson got much done at all. Deal with them he does, though, which makes All the Way the boon to his legacy that Selma didn’t bother to be. (Nor should it have had to. The movie wasn’t about him.) Granted, a civil rights parable told through the eyes of a white Southerner makes for kind of a crappy civil rights parable, so it’s a much better prescription for politics. True, good compromise means no one comes out satisfied. But if Lyndon Johnson — Southern Democrat, loving adulterer, charming flasher — can pull a divided nation by the ears and make that compromise happen, what’s anybody else’s excuse?
Out to give voice to every disparate shred of the Long Tall Texan’s legacy, All the Way ends up being a fascinating story undermined by its own compromises.