I’ve been shooting pellets at Rob Reiner‘s LBJ, which pops this Friday (11.3). I saw it a few weeks ago at the Toronto Film Festival, and remarked that it feels like a dutiful, going-through-the-motions thing. I’ve mentioned that Woody Harrelson looks strange under that heavy makeup, and that his accent sounds more like Carson Wells, the bounty hunter he played in No Country For Old Men, than the speaking style of the nation’s 36th President.
But the main stopper (and the more I think about this the more confounding it seems) is Reiner’s bizarre decision to focus on roughly the same period covered by Jay Roach‘s Emmy-winning All The Way (HBO, 5.21.16), or LBJ’s Vice-Presidential years, JFK’s assassination in Dallas, and pushing through the ’64 Civil Rights bill. If Reiner had focused on LBJ’s Vietnam War-related downfall (’66 to ’68), he could have mined dramatically unexplored territory (outside of the realm of documentaries, I mean) and delivered a seriously sad tale that would’ve really hit home.
Anyone who’s seen David Grubin‘s LBJ, the four-hour PBS American Experience doc, knows what I’m talking about. Observations in the doc’s prelude say it all: Johnson’s saga is “a tragedy…he’s the central character in a struggle of moral importance ending in ruin” due to the Vietnam War.” [Johnson] was a “thoroughly American president, a man who reflected American moods and attitudes and contradictions and trends, and when he failed, it was America’s failure.” These two especially: “Few Presidents would suffer such a swift and tragic fall” and “this was a man who was so big, who reached so far and made it and then let the whole thing crumble…I think it’s one of the great stories of history.”
Reiner knew that Robert Schenkkan‘s All The Way had made a big impact on the Broadway stage, and obviously knew while he was preparing his project that an HBO version of the play, in which Bryan Cranston would repeat his Tony Award-winning performance, would beat him to the punch. But instead of switching gears and focusing on Johnson’s tragic demise, Reiner decided to mine almost the exact same territory. What was he thinking?
LBJ was in some ways a man of coarse appetites and whims, a hill-country Texan who occasionally muttered the N-word, and yet he grew out of the mentality of a Southern segregationist in the pocket of oil interests and became the most dynamic and accomplished social liberal of the 20th Century, certainly in terms of pushing through social legislation. But it all went to hell as he sank further and further into the swamp of Southeast Asia.