JFK Myths Still Hang Heavy Over Rob Reiner’s Enjoyable ‘LBJ’

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.

Woody Harrelson plays LBJ, the first illustration of the kind of tough choices Reiner faces in trying to adapt this material. Do you cast for character and acting ability or for physical resemblance? Reiner clearly chose the former, but neither does he want to lose all that was iconic about the Johnson visage — that proboscis nose, his Droopy Dog cheek folds, those comical dangling earlobes. That Johnson was not only a political foil for handsome JFK but a visual one is the kind of narrative symmetry no storyteller can resist.

Reiner tries to have it both ways, casting for tonal accuracy and trying to make up the difference with make up and prosthetics. Harrelson ends up looking as much like Johnny Knoxville’s old man make-up in Jackass as Johnson. It’s supremely distracting, but Harrelson is otherwise such a good casting choice that you can sort of will yourself past it. Much less forgivable is Reiner casting Michael Stahl-David as Robert Kennedy and sticking him with bad blue contact lenses that make him look like a crazed vampire. Would historically inaccurate eye color have been as distracting as this? I doubt it.

RFK functions as LBJ’s nemesis, fighting him on every attempt to placate the Southern bloc and needing to isolate LBJ politically to pave the way for his own presidential run in ’68. As the movie tells it, Johnson comes to this realization over the course of a single conversation, speaking the revelation out loud. (Eureka!) Like much of the film, it rides a fine line between slick exposition and too-slick exposition.

There’s more than a little Aaron Sorkin in Joey Hartstone’s script, with LBJ turning complex problems into glib witticisms, like “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissin’ out, than outside the tent pissin’ in.” Later in the film, we get a few of the old West Wing classics, a father figure changing the world with an earnest speech — filmed in a slow zoom and set to twinkling pianos. It’s artifice, sure, and catnip for Liberal Intellectuals Of A Certain Age™, but it’s easy to enjoy. I can’t quite bring myself to believe LBJ really jabbed a finger in the chest of Dixiecrat leader Richard Russell (played wonderfully by the always brilliant Richard Jenkins) and told him “Dick, you’re a racist,” but the movie makes me want to believe. As the filmmaker character in Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell says “Of course it’s bullshit. But it’s holy bullshit.”

Not surprisingly, coming from the director of Spinal Tap, a lot of the parts of LBJ that work best are the comedy. The now infamous bunghole talk between Johnson and his tailor makes it into LBJ‘s first 10 minutes, depicting the call mostly verbatim while Harrelson hams it up. Curiously, it adds in a crack where LBJ describes himself as “a well-endowed man,” while leaving out the part where Johnson belched into the phone. Either way, it’s clear that Johnson as incorrigible shit-kickin’ truth teller is closest to both Reiner and Harrelson’s wheelhouse. Hearing Harrelson drawl “pecker” is an aural pleasure on the level of Samuel L. Jackson saying “motherf*cker.” Certain words just fit certain actors.

The film is enjoyable, if incomplete. Its biggest flaw, other than not being a miniseries, is its reverent blindspot for JFK (that other pervasive Boomer trope). Even as LBJ depicts Bobby Kennedy as a naive, snot-nosed climber, Jack (played enjoyably by Jeffrey Donovan) is still the human embodiment of all the youth movement’s hopes and dreams, not just handsome but eminently fair and preternaturally wise. The movie even has JFK dropping the famous speech line “we do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard” into normal conversation. This Camelot myth treatment is somewhat to be expected coming from anyone who was a kid during the ’60s, but Reiner and Hartstone actually let it affect their depiction of Johnson.

When Johnson uses the nation’s mourning for the martyr Kennedy to ram through the previously politically untenable 1964 Civil Rights Act, the movie depicts this as Johnson having himself been moved by Kennedy’s death. This rather than the more obvious, and frankly more interesting conclusion, that Johnson was savvy and opportunistic, not himself a faithful servant of JFK’s legacy, just a man clever enough to realize that he could use that legacy for his own political moment (as LBJ‘s LBJ says, he’s the work horse to JFK’s show horse).

It would’ve been the perfect culmination of a story about using realpolitik for good, but they bungle it, precisely because they bought exactly what LBJ was selling. In not being able to see past this blind spot, Reiner proves that he’s no LBJ.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.