Movies

Rob Reiner On ‘LBJ,’ Weinstein, And The Optimism Of ‘The American President’

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Rob Reiner is not one to mince words. He’s not the type of person where you just can’t peg him down on where he stands on something. Reiner only joined Twitter (his father, Carl Reiner, has been on Twitter for years now) so he could have a platform to share his opinion of then-candidate Donald Trump. If you’ve followed Reiner’s career at all, it will come as no surprise that he is not a fan of our current president.

But that’s also interesting in the context of his new film, LBJ, which takes a look at the 36th President of the United States (played by Woody Harrelson) – a president Reiner admits he “hated” back when Johnson in office, primarily because of Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. But history is starting to become kind to Johnson, who passed the Civil Rights Act and championed many important social programs. And now here’s Reiner, making a movie about a president he didn’t care for all that much.

Reiner, who’s been in Hollywood since the late 1960s and has been around the industry his whole life, seems like he’d have a strong opinion on what’s been happening recently with the allegations against not just Harvey Weinstein, but now a whole host of filmmakers and actors. And, not surprisingly, Reiner did have a lot to say.

Lyndon Johnson was very unpopular in the late 1960s…

He was.

Did you dislike him when he was president?

I hated him. I mean, when I was draft age during the Vietnam War, so he was my enemy. I hated him. I didn’t think I’d make a movie about him because that’s the only image I had of him. So when the script was presented, I didn’t even read it. I had to think about this for a while.

Had your opinion of him softened over the years?

It started to soften when I put it in a broader context. In the years I’ve spent growing up and spending time in politics, I started thinking about this guy and realizing, yes, there’s the Vietnam War, but he also had the greatest legislative domestic achievements of any president other than maybe FDR. So you have a tale of two presidencies – who is this guy? So that’s what made me start reexamining him.

A lot is made of Johnson continuing Kennedy’s domestic agenda, but couldn’t it also be said he was also following Kennedy’s foreign policy in Vietnam? He kept all of Kennedy’s people.

I think it’s too simple to say that, even though the Kennedy people were there. It’s too simple to say that because as far as getting legislation passed, that he knew. He knew how to do that. Foreign policy, he was not as knowledgeable on. With the war, I don’t think he knew what he was getting into…

He was listening to a lot of bad advice.

He was listening to the wrong people. And he also loved FDR. And I think he saw his hero as someone who helped defeat the Nazis and fascism. And I think he thought he’d be thought of as a president who defeated the communists.

When he died in 1973, I’d suspect he never thought there would someday be a reevaluation of his presidency. And it did take a long time. Vietnam cast a long shadow.

We now have normalized relations with Vietnam. Vietnam went communist…

And the Domino Theory didn’t happen…

The Domino Theory went in reverse, if anything! We saw the collapse of the Soviet Union. The only horrible, horrible tragedy is that millions of people were killed and that’s terrible. Ben Barnes, who was the lieutenant governor in Texas, told me this story: He was on a boat with Johnson a year after he left the presidency, with Robert McNamara, and they got into a big fight about Vietnam because Johnson always felt like he was misled.

Did you watch the Ken Burns documentary?

I’ve watched it, yes.

It’s pretty clear how much this weighed on him from that, and how Nixon screwed him over with peace negotiations.

Absolutely. And at one point when they got into this fight, Johnson started crying. And Barnes said it was really weird to see Johnson crying and saying, “All those boys. All those boys.” He was tortured by the fact he couldn’t figure out how to get out of Vietnam.

I know the reevaluation started before Trump, but a lot of reevaluations of presidents seems to be going on right now. You even see it for George W. Bush…

You know, people forget what Bush did with Iraq, which was the worst foreign policy disaster. But he seems like a nice guy anyway, whatever. We finished this film long before Trump was on the radar and we never thought Trump would be president, so we weren’t thinking about that. But I think since Trump has become president, I think people are going to see it through that lens.

It’s impossible not to.

It’s impossible not to, exactly.

It’s impossible not to with anything, really.

So now, you look at this picture and you see, well, this is how government was supposed to work. This is what a real president does.

The most optimistic Trump take when he was elected was “Maybe he will grow into it.”

Correct.

Johnson seems like he did grow into it. You’re shaking your head, so you don’t agree with that…

No. He didn’t grow into his abilities to govern.

Not his ability to govern, but the decisions he made. Like pushing through the Civil Rights Act…

He seized an opportunity he saw, and there’s a big difference because this guy was a consummate legislator. He knew how it all worked down to his toes. The thing he had to grow into was the acceptance they had of him – because they loved Kennedy. And Johnson knew they weren’t going to accept him and they weren’t going to love him and he was deeply depressed by that. But Johnson was a person who could deliver and he knew how to deliver. That’s the way people he was going to get people to love him.

This is isn’t your first movie about the presidency. The American President is much more optimistic.

Well, the other one is fiction.

Of course, but it’s still a much different tone.

Well, the character of Andrew Shepherd was loosely based on Bill Clinton and it was the presidency that we knew about. We didn’t show the negative, scandalous side. But we showed the idealistic side.

But “idealism” seems like a fantasy now. I love The American President and it’s a hard movie to watch right now.

Well, it does make sense. And people think now we are more divided than we’ve ever been and it’s true. But I do also think if our democracy can hold – and I’m also a little worried about that when I see the attacks on the First Amendment and the press, there could be erosion to where we slip into authoritarianism. I don’t think it will happen, but it could. But if our democracy does hold, I think if there’s an emergence of a really strong leader who knows how government works, how it really works, then I think you can see a resurgence.

Last time I spoke to you in 2014, your dad was very active on Twitter and I asked when you were joining. I think your response was, “ehhh.”

And I never would have joined Twitter except for Trump. I started it a little bit more than a year ago during the campaign. And I was just appalled by what was happening and I had to speak out. I don’t have a show, but I figure on Twitter I can just say what I think about him and that’s the reason I joined. If you look at my twitter account, you’ll see 99.9999999 percent is about Trump.

When you joined did you call your dad and ask how to do it?

[Laughs.] No, but I did ask people how to do it. I didn’t know how to do it at first.

If Trump goes away does your Twitter go away?

Probably.

Your voice is important though.

Well, maybe there will be something else. You know, I’m not a good self-promoter.

But that’s not what you’re doing.

Well, if a film comes out I do want to say, hey, come look at the film.

But see that’s fine, you’re not just doing that. You’re just…

Yeah, just throwing in a thing, hey, I’m doing a thing…

You’ve been doing this a long time. With what we saw not just with Harvey Weinstein, but so many others now, Roy Price at Amazon was gone in days…

And look at Kevin Spacey, same thing.

What is your opinion of what’s happening?

I think social media, in that case, is good. It spreads the word very, very quickly. The downside of social media is Russian propaganda, which gets seen by 130 million people. And it gets tweeted out and it becomes a reality. It’s a horrible fake reality. If there’s a silver lining at all to this Weinstein thing, it’s that it’s put a huge spotlight on something that is pervasive everywhere, not just Hollywood. Everywhere. You look at Fox News, you look at Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, you can’t talk to a woman who, at some point, hasn’t had some form of sexual harassment in some way. They have no avenue to speak up because it’s either thought they are liars or they are asking for it. Or they get punished. You have the President of the United States actively saying he did this! And proud of it! And he still gets elected! So where can a woman go? So, this a good point of discussion for all of us and I think the men have to be stepping up.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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