“LBJ”, a new political, biographical movie, focuses on the presidency of John F. Kennedy through the eyes of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Director Rob Reiner—known for “The Bucket List” and “Rumor Has It”—casts Woody Harrelson to play the role of Johnson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh to play Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson. While the Huffington Post calls “LBJ,” “the movie; not to be missed,” viewers may be better off waiting for “LBJ”’s arrival to Netflix rather than trekking to theaters.
Although the film focuses primarily on Johnson’s time as vice president to President John F. Kennedy, we see Johnson become president after JFK’s assassination, as well as his short-lived presidential campaign against Kennedy. Johnson was known by many as a crass and unfiltered politician, yet Reiner displays the softer side of Johnson with scenes of his most private moments with his wife, the only person with whom he is vulnerable.
The complexity of Johnson in this film may be overdone, though, as the Kennedys are cast as bullies opposing Johnson. Viewers are tossed back and forth between feeling bad for Johnson and disliking him. Furthermore, and perhaps unnecessarily, the film focuses far more on the tension between Robert “Bobby” F. Kennedy (played by Michael Stahl-David) and Johnson than on any interaction Johnson has with the president himself.
The initial lighting choices in the film are confusing in regards to who is the villain and who is the hero during Johnson’s presidential campaign before he becomes JFK’s running mate. The Kennedys and their campaign team are consistently cast in bright, soft lighting, whereas Johnson and his confidants are almost always cast in dark, shadowed lighting.
Another questionable stylistic choice is Reiner’s decision to flash back and forth from the hours leading up to JFK’s assassination in Texas to various moments in Johnson’s life. We see not only his presidential campaign, but his time as the majority leader in the U.S. Senate, as well as his vice presidency. Without careful attention to the title cards, the jumping between time periods can be difficult to follow.
Other flaws in the film include the Kennedy brothers’ drawl; it was a stretch to try and emulate the classic Massachusetts accent. Actor Jeffrey Donovan plays JFK, and unfortunately, his looks miss the mark of JFK’s iconic face. The black and white shots in which Donovan delivers JFK’s iconic speeches only highlight the fact that he simply does not portray a convincing John F. Kennedy. However, Reiner’s use of historical news reels, without the president in them, do create a slight sense of authenticity.
Despite the performance of the actors who play John and Bobby Kennedy, Harrelson and Leigh have a clear talent for both portraying their respective characters, as well as the Johnson’s marriage. While the prosthetic noses are a bit off-putting from Harrelson and Leigh’s well-known faces, they quite accurately depict the appearance of the Johnson family.
While I was initially excited at the prospect of seeing “the other side” of the JFK story—from Lyndon B. Johnson’s perspective—I now understand why more movies have not been made from his point of view.
Furthermore, I was the only one in the movie theater, if that is any indication of this movie’s success.