While comparisons to the Tony Award-winning stage production are sure to dominate much of the conversation surrounding “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s HBO adaptation of his own play, it’s important to point out how both he and director Jay Roach have effectively (if not smoothly) transformed the story from one medium to another. There’s a choppiness to the two-hour-and-12-minute film, with scenes bursting into one another; abruptly shifting between political battles as Lyndon B. Johnson — played, as he was on stage, by Bryan Cranston — assumes the presidency, defends it and puts forth an agenda that could be more of a challenge than even he is prepared to handle. More than that, there’s consistent location changes, an absence of lengthy or repetitious monologs and diligence to the complex nature of Johnson’s contradictory desires.
That being said, above all else, “All the Way” should be judged on the execution of its thesis statement: “LBJ is not the second coming. He’s just like every other politician: He’ll do what it takes to get elected. But I think he really wants civil rights.” Martin Luther King Jr., played with admirable restraint by Anthony Mackie, says as much while defending his decision to stand behind the man, and the movie absolutely demystifies America’s 36th president as much as it chronicles how he was the right person to get the job done. Overlength and underexposure of key side characters (like Melissa Leo’s Lady Bird Johnson) are made up for mainly by Cranston’s towering performance, but each sentence of King’s plea outlines not only the motivation for the movie, but the construction of it.
The lengthy first act is largely spent throwing viewers into the complex cultural climate Johnson found himself in immediately after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But unlike the tame, non-committal behind-the-scenes glimpse given in the recent HBO film “Confirmation,” “All the Way” has history on its side and immediately begins painting Johnson in an unflattering light. Throughout the film, you hear stories of his womanizing ways and see first-hand how cruelly he treats his ever-supportive wife, all while he savvily navigates political waters in his ongoing quest for power and openly sulks when he doesn’t get his way. His attitudes and verbiage are aptly dated, and Cranston embodies him with a passion that doubles down on his ugly personal life.
Yet what Schenkkan’s script and Roach’s direction carefully keep in mind are how these very same tendencies are matched in action, if not outright enthusiasm, by the moral good within him that pushed him to fulfill Kennedy’s wishes — and his own — of passing the Civil Rights Act. Viewers are meant to respond in a similar fashion to the various historical figures surrounding Johnson, in that they all are somewhat shocked to see a man who’s trying to do such good act in such a foul manner. (And all the credit in the world to Bradley Whitford and Stephen Root for their master class in how reactions can tell a story more than actions.)
It’s a jarring experience, for sure, and constructed as such. The judgment of LBJ hangs over “All the Way” throughout, even as the (rather bloated) second act shifts focus from the dirty business of passing a controversial bill to the downright disturbing process of winning a presidential election. The final section serves to clarify Johnson’s priorities and thus the man himself, which largely helps the film finish strong, but it’s in the nasty fight for the Democratic nomination that Schenkkan’s adaptation of a play first brought to the stage in 2012 finds relevance today. Some may be quick to point out the similarities between 2016’s unappealing candidates and Johnson, but the real topical content is the difference between what each generation’s politicians are fighting for.
Parallels between the overt racism of the ’60s and the consequential effects of today are strong, emotional hooks that dig in hard on their own, but it’s only when you look at who was pushing past politics then — despite knowing it could kill his political career — and who’s been all-consumed by his quest for power today — do we really have to say his name? — that “All the Way” becomes a terrifying reminder of how political machinations have come to control more than who’s in power, but how much less comes from it. We, the people, saw results in the ’60s, whereas today less concrete examples of progress are provided. Johnson’s ugly actions may be exposed, but at least he was fighting for something real.
The political climate strangling good intentions only seems all the more rampant today — even if the men in power share a complicated personal integrity. In this, “All the Way” should be admired for going the distance, and Cranston rewarded for holding it all together.