There are several reasons why Rob Reiner might not seem like the right guy to direct a movie about LBJ. For one thing, the filmmaker has always been an outspoken liberal. For another, it’s hard to imagine that a man whose recent output includes “Flipped” and “The Bucket List” has any interest in making a movie about real people, let alone someone so famous. (We’ll grant him “Being Charlie,” the intensely personal drama he made about his son earlier this year.)
But the most pressing reason why Reiner doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the subject is that we live in a world where actual politics are starting to feel more like the movies with every passing day, and this may not the best time for someone with such cartoonish sensibilities to revisit the beltway. After all, the climactic speech that Michael Douglas delivered at the end of Reiner’s “The American President” is more urgent now than ever — once upon a time, “We have serious problems to solve and we need serious people to solve them” was the rousing stuff of a sweet romantic comedy, and not something that we desperately need to remind 50% of the people in this country.
And yet, in one key respect, Rob Reiner is the perfect person to direct an LBJ biopic, even if it meant that the movie would be destined for mediocrity: He’s a filmmaker whose career has been increasingly predicated upon compromise, and Lyndon B. Johnson was a President whose greatest success was founded upon the same principle. So if Reiner’s broad and somewhat banal new film is exactly the kind of surface-level historical portrait you’d expect from someone who’s never met a film script he couldn’t shoot like a television show, it nevertheless captures something real and powerfully relevant about the 36th President of the United States.
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And it features a Johnson for the ages. Much like the movie that orbits around it, Woody Harrelson’s lead performance is pitched somewhere between plainspoken truth and inadvertent (albeit undeniably entertaining) parody. Swollen with prosthetic jowls and spitting venom with a voice that sounds a lot like Will Forte’s impression of George W. Bush, Harrelson’s Johnson would feel like a political cartoon if not for the actor’s garrulous sincerity. Yes, he’s a deep-fried Southern blowhard who shits with the door open and barks about his dick in a crowded room of staffers, but the script — by “Project Runway associate producer Joey Hartstone — paints the President as a fundamentally decent man who wants to be a leader in a world that he knows he has to share with people of many different values.
While hardly as kaleidoscopic as Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” (which covers some of the same territory), “LBJ” isn’t quite as basic as it looks. Hartstone rejects a simple chronological approach, fracturing the formative events of Johnson’s political career so that glimpses of Kennedy’s assassination — and Johnson’s inauguration — are threaded through much longer scenes of his aborted 1960 campaign, his home life (Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Ladybird as a cutesy non-presence), and the uncomfortable months in which he assumed the presidency and worked to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The splintered structure doesn’t add much real texture to Reiner’s portrait — this is a biopic in which the clever moments are overshadowed by its clumsy movements — but it does allow the film to isolate and stretch a few key ideas that course through LBJ’s entire time in Washington. Chief among them is the notion that Johnson was essentially a brute who yearned to be Prince Charming — a monster who longed to sit at King Arthur’s table at the center of Camelot.
Before he agrees to be JFK’s running mate, the deep-blooded Texan explains that there are two kinds of politicians in the world: Workhorses and show horses. He knows he’s the former, he knows that it’s an unchangeable part of his DNA, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be pet as fondly as any of the other steeds in the stable. “My husband is scared that people won’t love him,” Ladybird tells an aide. “He’s a sensitive man with a massive ego.”
Harrelson, who has a gift for squeezing charm out of even his most monstrous characters, leans hard into the contradictory notion that Johnson is a power-hungry humanist. The result is a performance that is both wildly ridiculous and appreciably grounded, like all politicians aspire to be — always compelling (if only to see in what direction it will go next), Harrelson’s turn seizes on his unique charisma in order to disentangle LBJ from the policies that have defined his legacy.
The most prominent of those policies, of course, was his administration’s enthusiasm for the Vietnam War, which goes all but unmentioned until the text before the end credits. This is a film about remembering people for the best of their natures and the greatest of their accomplishments, a film about how we’re too often defined by our darkest moments. The compassion that it brings into the political arena is admirable, even if the simplistic means by which Reiner brings it to the fore are so transparent and dramatically inert that it often makes you wish he hadn’t tried.
Richard Jenkins is always a delight, and the hyper-racist senator he plays is at the center of some wonderful exchanges, but the character is drawn with such lip-smacking relish that it obliterates any nuance to LBJ’s moral evolution.
It’s as though Reiner, compromising as he does, felt that he could only find his protagonist’s goodness by heightening the evil of the people around him. Which isn’t to suggest that such evil didn’t exist (or doesn’t still), but only that “LBJ” would so obviously be more comfortable lionizing a heroic leader than a complicating a human being. But therein lies the redeeming value of Reiner’s film, the truth at the heart of an earnest little biopic that often feels like it’s been sculpted out of wax: Lyndon B. Johnson was never comfortable in his own skin, and he resented the hell out of the people who were, but that didn’t stop him from trying to get the job done.
“LBJ” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.