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‘All the Way’ review: Bryan Cranston dominates as Lyndon B. Johnson

Bradley Whitford, left, looks on as Anthony Mackie

Bradley Whitford, left, looks on as Anthony Mackie and Bryan Cranston shake hands in HBO's "All the Way." Credit: HBO / Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

WHAT IT’S ABOUT This Jay Roach (“Recount”)-directed adaptation of the Broadway play by Robert Schenkkan stars Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson, in the packed year before his election in 1964, when he was preoccupied with civil rights legislation and the growing conflict in Vietnam. But mostly civil rights: “If a president can’t do what he knows is right,” he tells the press, “then what’s the presidency for?”

LBJ initially courts the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie), but promises his longtime ally in the Senate, Georgia’s Richard Russell (Frank Langella) that he’s not about to abandon Democrats or the South. He finds himself a pliant vice president, Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford), manipulates J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root) and snaps at Lady Bird (Melissa Leo) Johnson. LBJ is also in a big hurry.

MY SAY He pleads. He wheedles. He torments. He bellows, whispers, flatters, debases, bullies. He waves his arms like a man under attack by gnats. He cries and whimpers — the self-pity abetted, then intensified, by the Cutty Sark — but recovers just enough to grab a phone by the throat, followed by the throat of someone on the other end of the line.

Cranston doesn’t turn in one performance here, but at least a dozen. All of them, incidentally, are spectacular. That’s the glory of “All the Way,” also (paradoxically) the limitation. This is as much a one-man play (or teleplay) as any play with a cast of dozens could possibly be. With that perfectly sculpted prosthetic nose, slicked-back hair, and Texas drawl, Cranston achieves the illusion we all have come for — of the lion in winter, or at least in the fall. He’s battling the Senate, the South, Democrats, Hoover, close friends and occasionally even himself. Tempus fugit drives him, a portent of his mortality, too. “People think I want great power, but what I want is great solace,” he confides to aide Walter Jenkins (Todd Weeks). That’s a lie — a real Texas whopper — but Cranston lofts it into the upper deck.

Cranston is so effective here that the rest of the cast — a mostly brilliant one — rarely comes into focus, or not quite fully to life. At least in the first hour, “All the Way” also feels like a play consigned to the screen. It’s good, dutiful and thoughtful, but also initially cramped and a little arid, without the sweep or grandeur of the moment.

That does change. “All the Way” gets a couple of electrifying performances that catalyze the drama — not to mention the forward momentum of history. They’re brief, but they do the job: Aisha Hinds, as the voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, and Eric Pumphrey as activist Dave Dennis. In just over 60 seconds of pure sound and fury in their respective scenes, they remind viewers that a deep, visceral, angry drift toward justice was underway and also inevitable. In those fleeting moments on screen, LBJ — even Cranston’s version — is a mere bystander.

BOTTOM LINE Magnificent, often stirring performance by Cranston that no one else comes close to matching.

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