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'JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness' review: Lyndon Johnson in a better light

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Credit: LBJ Library / Frank Muto

THE DOCUMENTARY "JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Lyndon Baines Johnson is mostly remembered as the president who oversaw a divisive failure -- the war in Vietnam -- but this film wants to remind viewers that 50 years ago, he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"It was a commitment my father felt so strongly was within our grasps and [we] needed to do it -- not just to be on the right side of history, but to be right," says LBJ's daughter, Luci Baines Johnson. The film charts LBJ's struggle to get both acts passed -- while facing the defection of Southern Democratic senators who tried to filibuster the proposed Civil Rights Act into oblivion, over a record 534 hours. To no avail: It passed June 19, 1964.

MY SAY At times this short film plays like a direct rebuke to another -- 2014's "Selma," which was less than kind to Johnson, suggesting the 36th president was unenthusiastic about Martin Luther King Jr. and his march. Critics -- including Johnson's top domestic aide, Joseph Califano, interviewed for this hour -- were infuriated by what they said was a defamatory portrayal.

Now comes "A Time for Greatness," which feels like an overcorrection. It's often an exercise in apple-polishing, and shimmers with triumphalism. A soaring music track, along with some re-enactments and interviews -- all deeply laudatory of LBJ -- complete the effect.

Moreover, the title is misleading. John F. Kennedy is barely mentioned here, leaving the distinct impression that the great landmark civil rights legislation was shaped almost entirely by his successor.

The unnecessary production flourishes give the impression that they are obscuring a more human story, certainly a more nuanced one. That's a shame, because even as it now stands, "A Time for Greatness" is still an important reminder -- that Johnson did indeed get the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed. You don't need a exultant music score to make that any more dramatic than it is.



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