Sandwiched between the sainted martyr JFK and the personification of presidential corruption Richard Nixon, LBJ has one of the most complicated legacies of any former president. Given the subject matter, perhaps it’s not surprising that Rob Reiner’s new biopic has trouble reconciling it all in a single movie. In fact maybe the mistake was trying to in the first place.
A plainspoken good ol’ boy who took staff meetings on the toilet and famously demanded that his tailor leave room for his prodigious bunghole, LBJ is remembered either as the ideal of the moral Southerner, a canny political operator who despite growing up in the South and opposing civil rights bills throughout his early career ultimately defied his fellow Southern Democrats and signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act; or as the out-of-his-depth president who naively listened to his generals’ bad advice and escalated a disastrous war in Vietnam. Depending on how (and when) you depict him, LBJ can be everything good about career politicians or everything bad about them, a Civil Rights hero or the bete noire of the counter culture — “that lyin’ son of a bitch Johnson,” as Jenny’s abusive Black Panther boyfriend in Forrest Gump put it.
Reiner’s LBJ focuses entirely on the pre-Vietnam Johnson: comedic, heroic, flawed but ultimately good, a classic shit talker with a heart of gold — Americans as we like to see ourselves, basically. As LBJ biographer Robert Caro wrote of Johnson, “He always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition. But when the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction, then Lyndon Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequalled certainly since Lincoln.”
That’s the kind of feel-good story Hollywood loves, but there’s an elephant in the room if you give it so encompassing a title as “LBJ.” Aaron Sorkin dealt with a similar problem in Charlie Wilson’s War by just leaving out the final chapter, the part where the Mujahideen who stuck it to the Soviets eventually turned against his clever American heroes. Reiner is too honest, or maybe just too much of a Boomer to expect us not to remember the Vietnam Johnson, and his solution is an inelegant one — three slides of epilogue text, doing heavier lifting than biopic epilogue text ever has before. LBJ probably should’ve been a miniseries. It would’ve made a great one.