Lyndon Johnson was a tall man, 6’4.”
He had a habit of leaning into colleagues and subordinates, towering over them, intimidating even in the friendliest of circumstances. And as he had a temper and a mania for hard work, wheeling and dealing and getting his way, he didn’t hesitate to use this trick in touchier, testier situations.
That literal “larger than life” part of the Texan’s persona was fundamental to who he was, and there’s plenty of photographic evidence of him close-talking, leaning into and talking down to people he was trying to strong-arm into voting his way or measuring up to his standards.
So when you’re casting somebody to play him, they’d better be as tall as 6’5″ Randy Quaid (TV’s “LBJ: The Early Years”), or 6’4″ Donald Moffat (“The Right Stuff”) or at least be prepared to play him that big and intimidating (Bryan Cranston of “All the Way”).
The accomplished character actor Woody Harrelson plays an occasionally volcanic, sometimes strong-arming and always cunning and persuasive Johnson in Rob Reiner’s film “LBJ,” a drama framed in the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson became president. And although the physical resemblance — big nose, basset hound ears — borders on uncanny, the 5’10” Harrelson never quite carries himself like a big man with big ambitions and a bag full of bully’s tricks. He gives us a drawling, almost soft-spoken Johnson, not the way he’s typically remembered.
Cranston’s recent portrayal thundered, where Harrelson is content to growl.
Some of that falls onto the script, by “Project Runaway” (?!) vet Joey Hartstone. Reiner’s directing career since the wonderful “Flipped” flopped hasn’t commanded the best collaborators or big studio releases. But there’s merit in the ways this story shows us the “deal-maker” Johnson, frustrated by being muzzled and neutered by the conniving Kennedy brothers, bigger than them and forced to sit in the shadows until that awful day in Dallas.
“LBJ” is a mostly flattering portrait that ends before the tidal wave of Vietnam swallowed Johnson’s presidency. Harrelson’s LBJ wears out a vast staff, haranguing one and all for information, numbers of votes he can count on as Senate Majority Leader.
He ends phone arguments with a slam, mutters profane insults, hurls profane threats and even his fellow Democrat and Fellow Texan in the Senate, Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman), a liberal, cannot escape his contempt when he disagrees with a political stance.
“Spoken like a true one-term United States Senator,” LBJ growls.
The election of 1960 is approaching, and Johnson wants to jump from the most powerful post in Congress to the White House. But those rich, handsome young Kennedys, candidate Jack (Jeffrey Donovan of “Burn Notice,” quite good) and his sidekick and campaign manager Bobby (Michael Stahl-David, amusingly sinister) have the jump on him.
Johnson may believe “This country is NOT gonna elect a CATHOLIC president,” but he knows the callow but movie-star handsome JFK has the edge, and that plays into a homely country boy’s worst fears.
“He’s afraid people won’t love him,” wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh, spot-on) says.
The movie’s richest, juiciest scenes are between Harrelson and his equally talented fellow character player Richard Jenkins, as Richard Russell, elder statesman of the Senate, an old school Georgia racist and one of the most powerful politicians in Washington. As much as we can make out of the most famous of the LBJ White House tapes of Johnson browbeating the old man into serving on the Warren Commission, the real relationship must have played out more like this.
Johnson flatters, he charms, he begs. His role, upon taking the “most thankless job” in the Kennedy White House, as a nearly powerless vice president, is working as intermediary between the idealistic, Civil Rights-promising Kennedys and the Southern Democrats of Congress. He swaps racist jokes with Russell, then leans in on him to get concessions at a Georgia Lockheed factory where a billion dollar Air Force order might be fulfilled.
Harrelson brilliantly conveys Johnson bridling at the confines of the vice presidency, suffering the pointless, demeaning treatment of Bobby Kennedy, always the politician in front of other politicians, never losing his temper in a group setting.
But in private? On the phone? Nobody ever left a meeting (often in the toilet) with LBJ not knowing if he was pissed off.
Reiner’s picture, framed as it is within scenes of that fateful 1963 visit to Dallas, becomes quite the image-burnishing in the hours after Kennedy was shot — from chaos and Secret Service-inspired panic, to a big man who thinks through what he needs to do and in a snap, starts doing it — angling for “permission” from a testy Bobby to get moving, working the phones, begging everyone from colleagues and Kennedy appointees to ex-presidents for help.
“I need you more than President Kennedy EVER did” he says to one and all.
That’s the way this script and Reiner’s film lets Johnson have the last word, verifying Johnson’s backroom description of the primary campaign of 1960. Kennedy was “a show horse.” Johnson? Always a “work horse.”
The height and the way he used it should have been addressed. The film, like the player cast as its lead, is too short to do the subject justice.
But Harrelson’s “LBJ” comes off as the bigger man, smarter than he often let on, the one who could read the tides of change as he counted the votes in Congress, someone who could grow into the office and bend the nation’s moral will even if he realized it would take the long view of history to prove him right and finally recognize the titanic efforts it took to alter the course of that history.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stahl-David, Bill Pullman
Credits:Directed by Rob Reiner, script by Joey Hartstone An Electric Entertainment/Castle Rock release.
Running time: 1:38