After having its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016, Rob Reiner’s LBJ has finally bowed out in theaters over one year later. Woody Harrelson does a pretty good job as the title character and uses his natural Texan features well. The rest of the supporting cast doesn’t shine as brightly, and a rehashed story about the Civil Rights Movement makes this film average at best.
The film follows the years 1959-1963, a time when Johnson was at the height of his power. We follow his path from Senate majority leader, vice president, and ultimately, president. Along on the ride is his ever supporting wife, Lady Bird Johnson (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lyndon also has to deal with the civil rights policies of JFK (Jeffrey Donovan) and how he is going to carry that legacy after the infamous assassination in Dallas.
The film only carries a 98-minute runtime and flows at a speedy pace. The only event we really spend that much time on is the civil rights debate. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the final act of the film and we never see anything else about Johnson’s presidency. It doesn’t feel right that a film titled LBJ only concentrates on less than half his term. The film also feels like it was made in the 90’s because of the overly patriotic tone and score. I feel that releasing this film as a television movie would have been a better film because of the small size and focused storyline.
LBJ is also a slightly comedic film mostly because of the overly vulgar and blunt antics by Johnson himself. People that have lived through his administration will probably get most of the jokes and find the comedy in serious situations. The best moment comes in the beginning of the film when Johnson is heckling his workers and calling his tailor to resize his pants because of his “well endowment” and need for his “nuts to breathe”.
The biggest disappointment of the film is the makeup. While it’s usually not a huge component, in this instance it really throws off the look of the actors. Woody Harrelson in full makeup doesn’t look that much like the real Johnson. A side by side comparison of the two will really puts the poor makeup in perspective. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s transformation into Lady Bird Johnson ends up being even worse than Harrelson’s. You can obviously see the makeup on her face and it doesn’t look natural. It looks like she has a Halloween mask on her face.
The acting is either hit or miss, with some performances ranging from pretty good to downright bad. Woody Harrelson does a decent job as Johnson. He has the same gravitas and powerful demeanor Johnson had in real life. However, Harrelson doesn’t have a convincing southern accent even though he spends about half his time talking about the south. His performance also pales in comparison to Bryan Cranston's role in the 2016 television film All the Way.
Jeffrey Donovan does a great job as John F. Kennedy. He perfectly imitates Kennedy’s famous voice and shares many physical similarities with him. He plays Kennedy as a calm and collected politician that never cracked under pressure, especially when it came to civil rights. Michael Stahl-David does an equally great job as the Robert Kennedy. RFK is the opposite of his president brother since he is headstrong and not afraid to voice his unwanted opinion. He constantly butts heads with Johnson and they continue their rivalry throughout the whole film.
Jennifer Jason Leigh does a poor job trying to portray the famous first lady. She never delivers more than a couple of lines of dialogue at a time and doesn’t have a convincing southern accent. Lastly, Bill Pullman delivers a weird and unneeded performance as Senator Ralph Yarborough. He only shows up for three scenes that total about less than ten minutes of screen time. He feels shoved in and I question why he’s even in the film.
LBJ is a film that thought it was something special when it actually never lifts off the ground. Harrelson and Donovan are the only shining lights lackluster biopic that doesn’t deliver on its promises. I recommend that viewers watch the superior All the Way if they want to learn about Johnson’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.