When LBJ was completed, Barack Obama still served as President of the United States and Americans everywhere were anticipating, obviously inappropriately, Hillary Clinton's ascendence to the nation's highest political office.
But, of course, things don't always go as expected and the polls aren't always right.
While there are those who continue to maintain faith that President Donald Trump will "Make America Great Again," LBJ director Rob Reiner isn't one of them. A lifelong Democrat with his own extensive involvement in California politics, Reiner could never have guessed that his film would be released amidst a resurgent wave of individualized and institutionalized racism that makes the film's glimpse into the early days of Johnson's presidency all that more potent.
The film stars Woody Harrelson as LBJ, a choice that at first seems jarringly weird yet a choice that becomes so spot-on perfect that after five minutes of watching the film I found myself having completely forgotten about Harrelson's make-up and prosthetic transformation from Woody to LBJ and found myself completely and utterly immersed in the actor's disciplined, complex and surprisingly introverted performance.
LBJ, which had its world premiere at TIFF ahead of its November nationwide opening with Electric Entertainment, was the opening night film for the 2017 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. This is the second time that Reiner has come to Indy for Heartland, the first being for the actual world premiere of his film Flipped, which at the time became the fifth of Reiner's films to receive Heartland's Truly Moving Picture Award.
Initially resistant to telling LBJ's story due to Johnson's escalation of America's involvement in the Vietnam War, it was only after his own personal research revealed a wider spectrum of truth about the highly accomplished president that Reiner opted to tackle Joey Hartstone's 2014 Black List recognized script.
LBJ is, it's fair to say, a safe film as could pretty much be said for the vast majority of Reiner's 20+ films throughout his directorial career. In an era when Hollywood pours out sequel after sequel and special effect after special effect, Reiner's LBJ is refreshingly low-key, at times rather retro in its design and devoid of the overtly stylized trappings that made a film like Jackie a critical darling without an audience. LBJ, on the other hand, could find and should find an audience with a performance by Harrelson that captures the wild complexities that comprised Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, a southern Democrat, which for most Republicans is about the only thing worse than a Democrat, was a larger-than-life, frequently vulgar yet also a policy guru who expertly played both sides of the table and who had an innate understanding of human beings and human relationships.
He could also be really, really funny.
LBJ is not a bio-pic, instead largely taking place in November, 1963 when Johnson was thrust into the presidency following Kennedy's assassination and struggled to heal the nation and continue Kennedy's movement toward the Civil Rights Act that even he himself had resisted for years. The film does include flashbacks to Johnson's West Texas days and pays more than a little attention to the uneasy alliance that was formed between JFK and LBJ when the younger, more charismatic Kennedy snagged the Democratic nomination for the presidency from Johnson and then, much to the chagrine of his brother Bobby, added Johnson to the ticket.
LBJ will have its naysayers. For some, Reiner's seemingly endless winning streak during the 80's and 90's, with the exception of 94's Razzie-nominated North, has given way to a string critical and/or box-office misfires since the turn of the century.
While LBJ isn't likely to be considered among Reiner's best, it should return the universally beloved director back to the winner's circle in terms of both box-office and critical acclaim with Harrelson's performance, certainly one of the best of his career, at minimum a dark horse for an Academy Award nomination.
In addition to Harrelson's top notch work, Richard Jenkins turns in his usual winning performance as Senator Russell, one of those Southern Democrats who fancies himself tolerant as long as he doesn't have to work, eat or do much of anything else alongside Blacks. A scene between LBJ and Senator Russell over dinner would be funny if it weren't so incredibly uncomfortable.
As Lady Bird, Jennifer Jason Leigh convinces despite being hidden behind make-up and prosthetics even more dramatically than those provided Harrelson. C. Thomas Howell and Bill Pullman also turn in compelling performances, while Jeffrey Donovan, as JFK, and Michael Stahl-David, as RFK, manage to portray the Kennedy brothers in a way that is both familiar yet layered with greater humanity than they are typically allowed in this type of flick.
Lensing by Barry Markowitz feels like it comes straight out of 1963, an approach that may prove distracting to some but an approach that adds to the film's quiet authenticity. Frequent Reiner collaborator Marc Shaiman contributes the film's occasionally moving, occasionally playful original score.
Rob Reiner has made a career out of finding the human element in a wide array of stories, from Stephen King novels to military thrillers to political films. With LBJ, Reiner proves once again that he's an actor's director as he leads Woody Harrelson to one of his finest performances to date and a solid candidate for year-end awards recognition.
Making American great again, Rob Reiner's LBJ opens nationwide on November 3rd.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic