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Sunday, May 22, 2016

All The Way Only Goes Half of the Way Towards Greatness

Lyndon Baines Johnson, our country's 36th president, is one of my personal favorite presidents. I studied him in depth in my A.P. U.S. History class junior year of high school and was lucky enough to be able to write about him on my A.P. Test. He was thrust into the presidency as a result of one of the most heinous acts ever committed on American soil and managed to pass some of our country's most important legislation, all while fondly whipping out his junk whenever he wanted to. Johnson was a larger than life character onto his own and that's what helped him become a successful president. That is why I found it odd that he seems to have been left behind in the zeitgeist. There are a litany of TV shows and movies all about JFK (and his assassination), but almost nothing about his successor. That is why I have been anxiously awaiting for HBO to release All The Way, a semi-biographical look at LBJ based upon the Tony-award winning play of the same name. Plus, we get to see Bryan Cranston's glorious return to television since Breaking Bad.

All The Way immediately thrusts LBJ into the presidency. You hear the sound of gunfire as the film begins and it immediately cuts to the bloody car in which John F. Kennedy was shot in. Soon after, LBJ is being told that Kennedy has passed and that he is now the President of the United States of America. The very first public thing Johnson does when he addresses the nation after this terrible deed is that he urges Congress to pass The Civil Rights Bill that JFK had worked so hard to pass as a way to honor the young former President's legacy. LBJ knows that if the bill is ever going to pass, it needs to be done right now while the memory of JFK is still fresh in people's minds. And so begins the first half of the film.

The first hour of All The Way is Lyndon Johnson's (played superbly by Cranston) attempt to pass The Civil Rights Bill. While he has the full support of liberal Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford), and gets the full support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Anthony Mackie)- even after LBJ removes the voting rights portion of the legislation, he must convince and win over the Dixiecrat portion of the Democratic Party, led by Democratic Senator Richard "Uncle Dick" Russell (Frank Langella). This portion of the film is mesmerizing and engaging. You get the full scope of how President Johnson was able to convince a conservative Congress and to have this bill pass through the different aspects and chambers of the House and Senate. LBJ makes deals with everyone he can and puts pressure on others to eventually pass one of America's greatest piece of legislation.

During this time you get to see both LBJ and Bryan Cranston shine. As I mentioned before, Lyndon Johnson was a character. He would have conversations with his colleagues while he takes a dump, he would corner Congressmen in elevators and politely-but-no-so-politely ask them to change their minds, and he would be over the top charismatic in public meetings. Meanwhile, you watch this crazy person on screen and forget that this man not so long ago was Walter White. While the make-up helps, Bryan Cranston loses himself in this role and you forget that you're watching the actor.

Eventually the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes, and the audience bears witness to a version of what Lincoln aspired to be. You see LBJ playing every party involved, even his dear friend and now staunch opponent Sen, Dick Russell. The scenes and interplay between Cranston and Frank Langella are incredible, and you realize that Langella is a master thespian in his own right (which everyone already knew after Langella played another politician of this era in Frost/Nixon). LBJ and Uncle Dick are great friends and confidants, but the Civil Rights Bill, and how LBJ played Russell, tear their friendship apart. Ultimately, it's this divide that led to a divide of the then modern Democratic Party- which leads into the second half of the film.

The second hour of All The Way sees LBJ dealing with the fall out of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as what LBJ had to do to get it passed. President Johnson now has to hit the campaign trail and win the job title that was handed to him. He faces opposition within his own party as the Southern Dixiecrats who once supported a fellow Southern turn and become Republicans. Johnson now has to deal with that along with a fight from the Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater as well as escalating racial tensions coming from Reverend King and his associates.

This second half falls flat for a variety of reasons. For starters, it's obvious that LBJ becomes the Democratic nominee for President and eventually wins the Presidency. The tension the film tries to introduce falls on deaf ears thanks to our history books. While it was obvious that LBJ would also pass Kennedy's Civil Rights Bill, the interesting part of the story was how President Johnson got it passed, not that he did. All The Way doesn't seem interested in telling you the "how" after the passing of the legislation, which in turns makes everything around it less interesting. Additionally, the film falls into typical biopic tropes where it shows you events that actually happened as opposed to letting the natural story dictate what the audience sees. We see this weird feud between J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root) and MLK that doesn't make any sense and goes nowhere, LBJ being shown the famous Daisy attack as just because its an important historical footnote, and a whole subplot dealing with protests in Mississippi that again seems important but ultimately goes nowhere. The second half of the film also feels like a co-biopic about Reverend King which muddles the water. I understand that Dr. King was important to LBJ's presidency, but he doesn't need to be as major of a character in a biopic about President Johnson. Plus, as good of an actor as Anthony Mackie is, he doesn't nearly come close to the work of almost every other major player in the film including Cranston and Langella.

The second half of the film does serve one important purpose though, in that it shows you that for all the good work LBJ did for this country, he was a fucking asshole. We got a sense of this when Johnson asked his wife Lady Bird (Melissa Leo) to fix her lipstick mere hours after the assassination of JFK, but the film (and I assume the play as well) does a great job of showing us the real Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was eccentric and did believe in progress, but he also wouldn't hesitate to insult or denigrate those close to him when it best suit his needs. Ultimately, it was this character study of Lyndon Johnson that made All The Way as successful as it was, but the plot wasn't always up to par with the character or Bryan Cranston's portrayal of the character. It worked well when we saw this character struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but not so much when the film had to juggle four other characters as well.

Ultimately, I would recommend All The Way, if nothing else for Bryan Cranston's and Frank Langella's performance, but I also wouldn't object if you turned off the film after the first hour either.



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