PLOT In the mid-1960s, Lyndon Johnson navigates the first years of his unexpected presidency.
CAST Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Jenkins
RATED R (language)
BOTTOM LINE A high-energy Harrelson in the lead role makes this somewhat perfunctory biopic worth watching.
The presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed just about every conceivable modern issue — war, racism, poverty, education, health care — in the span of roughly five years, and only one small slice of it serves as the basis for “LBJ,” Rob Reiner’s biographical drama.
Starring a lively Woody Harrelson as the plain-spoken Johnson, “LBJ” narrows its focus almost entirely to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark piece of legislation that explicitly outlawed racial discrimination and segregation. The result is a film that feels at once economical and effective, yet somehow incomplete.
Initially, the film manages to cover quite a bit of ground. We see Johnson as an ambitious but self-doubting politician whose wife, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), often has to coax him out of his darker moods. Ironically, he becomes vice president to the most charismatic leader of modern times, John F. Kennedy, and then — after a tactfully handled scene of Kennedy’s assassination — finds himself in the Oval Office. Here, the movie’s central question comes to the fore: Will Johnson carry Kennedy’s ideological torch, or preserve the racist status quo?
Harrelson has a ripsnorting time playing Johnson, particularly when he shuts the doors and lets down his guard (in one scene, he sits on the toilet in full view of his staff and issues directives). At times, it feels a little odd to see the wonderfully hammy Harrelson play such a gruff and serious politician. Still, Harrelson carries this movie almost single-handedly, and does so with humor and panache. Grounding the movie with more subtle performances are Richard Jenkins as the racist Sen. Richard Russell and Michael Stahl-David as Bobby Kennedy, who can barely hide his dislike for the man who now occupies his dead brother’s office.
“LBJ” often feels like an olive branch to Johnson from the 70-year-old Reiner, who was part of the generation that tarred and feathered the president over Vietnam while ignoring his many legislative accomplishments. Weaving that double-edged legacy into the narrative, instead of printing it on the screen as an epilogue, might have given this film a little more context and a sense of scope.