I typically approach historical bio-pics with trepidation. I *never* expect them to get every detail right but I’m a stickler for them getting the big picture right: HBO’s All The Way does just that. One reason I think the portrayal of LBJ, from the Kennedy assassination to his landslide win in 1964, is so accurate is that it’s based on Robert Schenkkan’s Tony award-winning play. It gave them time to work the kinks out.
The first thing I watched for was if Bryan Cranston who is 5’11” looked big enough to play LBJ. Johnson was 6’4″ a veritable giant in his time. LBJ was usually the biggest person in the room and his size was a key component of his domination politics. In an earlier HBO movie, The Path to War, Michael Gambon played LBJ but looked petite every time he stood next to Alec Baldwin as Robert McNamara. Cranston’s height didn’t matter on the stage but it was a nit I was prepared to pick. I think they pulled it off with camera angles and casting some short dudes in key parts. That nit remains unpicked but alluding to it gives me the excuse to talk about Peter Piper picking pickled peppers. I have no idea why but y’all know how my mind works by now. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty but first a vaguely relevant musical selection:
Back to the Johnsonian nitty gritty. The best thing about All The Way is how it captures LBJ’s complex and nuanced relationships with Richard Russell and Hubert Humphrey. Frank Langella plays Russell as a charming, lonely man with *horrible* retrograde, racist views on civil rights. LBJ was a professional son and Russell was his Senatorial daddy but this period addressed the son’s final rebellion against a father devoted to the lost cause. Langella is always excellent, but this may be his best performance yet. He plays Russell as a figure of pathos and a man out of time. Btw, Russell was always a skeptic about his protegé’s Vietnam misadventure. It’s pity he wasn’t listened to, just as he should have listened to Lyndon about civil rights. So it goes.
Johnson’s relationship with his Senate colleague and later Vice President Hubert Humphrey is often mischaracterized. Humphrey was *not* a fawning sycophant with his head wedged up LBJ’s ass. He was usually the dominant figure in any room *except* when he was around Johnson who out alphaed even other alpha males. Bradley Whitford nails HHH as a man who respects Johnson’s talents and leadership skills even while keeping a respectful distance from LBJ’s less salubrious aspects. The power dynamic between the two men shifted dramatically when Humphrey became Vice President. He should have stayed in the Senate but that’s neither here nor there. All The Way captures the nuances and subtleties of the LBJ-HHH relationship in a way I didn’t think possible.
All The Way also does a good job of capturing both sides of Johnson’s nature: he could be a harsh, malicious asshole one minute and a loving generous man the next. When he was riding high, nobody was more kindly and charming. When he was on the skids, nobody was nastier. Some of the assholery was done for effect, to bend people to his formidable will. Unfortunately, it was those closest to him such as Lady Bird and Chief of Staff Walter Jenkins who bore the brunt of his genuniely ugly side.
I swore I wouldn’t nit pick but I have a few minor cavils about All The Way. First, it *is* true that Johnson and Humphrey deployed UAW President Walter Reuther to lean on Dr. King about the Mississippi mishigas. But Reuther didn’t travel with sinister looking bodyguards like some mobbed-up union big cigar. In fact, Reuther fought mob infiltration of the labor movement, which is one reason the UAW left the AFL-CIO. Again, a minor point as is one about Hubert Humphrey. HHH did NOT attend Johnson’s memorable speech in New Orleans during the 1964 campaign. They kept Humphrey out of the South since he was Senator Civil Rights. End of the nit-picking portion of the post.
Bryan Cranston captures Lyndon Johnson in all his complexity. It’s hard to be simultaneously arrogant and insecure, but Cranston nails the duality of Johnson’s nature. He was a bundle of contradictions and remains the hardest President for me to rate. On domestic issues, he’s one of the top 3 or 4 Oval Ones, but Vietnam and his mendacity about it are always there. Lyndon Johnson was a complicated motherfucker, y’all. So it goes.
The acting is uniformly excellent. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Melissa Leo as Lady Bird and my homey Anthony Mackie as Dr. King. I give All The Way 4 stars, an Adrastos grade of A- and an Ebertian thumbs up.