Political Film Review #554

LBJ DEPICTS A CRUDE IF HUMBLE PRAGMATIST
Directed by crass Bronx-born Rob Reiner, who exhibits considerable braggadocio on television, with personable Texas-born Woody Harrelson starring in the title role, the biopic LBJ portrays the latter as a clever, coarse-speaking politician who rose from a member of Congress elected in the 1936 landslide for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to became President Lyndon Baines Johnson. While the narrative jumps back and forth throughout his life in the years before his presidency, he takes office after the assassination of popular president John F. Kennedy (played by Jeffrey Donovan) and accomplishes more in the field of civil rights vision because of his ability to persuade (and trade) with members of Congress. Titles at the end indicate that he went beyond Kennedy by gaining passage of Medicare, Medicaid, and launched the Great Society and Head Start to end poverty.

Most of the film focuses on LBJ’s personal relationships with others, with hints of his careful mentoring by Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) and deprecatory mentoring of his Congressional aide Robert “Bobby” Kennedy (Michael Richard-Stahl). His persuasive ability, known to some as “the treatment,” involves giving praise and a choice between opportunities for gain with threats of loss in a humble tone with arguments drawn from personal experience. He accepts the usually impotent position of vice president with the expectation that he will, as before, make his position more powerful, while President Kennedy fully understands and exploits his pragmatic abilities. Yet on several occasions, LBJ asks why he is so personally unpopular, evidently unaware that his crude manner of speaking turns off those accustomed to more refined discourse. Consoler-in-chief is Lady Bird Johnson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who finally accepted his marriage proposal, made on their first date, until she evidently learned the depth of LBJ’s deep, principled humility. At one point, LBJ explains to others why he is in favor of civil rights—because, as a Southerner, he understands the profound human dimensions that Northerners lack. Rival-in-chief is Bobby Kennedy, who opposes naming him as vice president and then refuses to listen to his cautiousness about pushing civil rights on Democrats in the South, in particular Russell, leader of the White Southern Democrats. The image of Bobby is of the one with the vision behind the charisma of his brother yet is impatiently and selfishly interested in becoming president after his brother would serve two terms in office. After JFK is assassinated, LBJ is superficially explained in the film as a more eloquent transformational president because he retains the same braintrust Cabinet-level officials, including Bobby, though contradictorily his meddling in Vietnam does not reveal the same wisdom. Humility again is assumed as the explanation for his refusal to run again for president in 1968, whereas the chants that he later heard in the White House, “LBJ, LBJ, How Many Have You Killed Today?” are not featured in the film.

Reiner’s interpretation of Johnson, thus, is very personal and at odds with many historical accounts, especially with those who found LBJ to be much more presidential and visionary in substance and in tone. In particular, Johnson’s decision to water down the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which inspired the North without alienating the South, could be cited as the reason for JFK’s narrow victory in 1960. Those yearning for someone to espouse the same causes with the same pragmatism may cheer the film, but not everyone today, as the reforms of LBJ are under attack by a new president who lacks the same qualities. Even so, the Political Film Society has nominated LBJ as best film on civil rights of 2017. MH