By Kyle Wooldridge
It’s Heartland time once again folks, the most wonderful time of the year for us here at The Reel Deal (or at least for me, that is). This year has been especially exciting because the festival kicked off with a new Rob Reiner movie. The opening night screening that I was fortunate enough to attend was for his newest film, LBJ, a biopic about, you guessed it, Lyndon B. Johnson. Now, I’ll preface this review with a disclaimer: I don’t usually like political dramas very much. The last political drama I watched, Jackie (2016), wasn’t really able to hold my interest (sorry if you’re a fan of Jackie. To each their own!). So without further ado, here are my thoughts on LBJ.
Without going into too much detail, the film follows LBJ, played by Woody Harrelson, on his journey from majority leader in Congress to becoming president after (SPOILER ALERT!) JFK gets assassinated. The film isn’t focused so much on plot as it is on character, so you don’t really need to know much more about the plot than that.
I like that the film only focuses on a short period of time (roughly four years), rather than trying to cover his entire life, or even just his entire political career. The film barely even dips its toes into the water of his actual presidency, which honestly I appreciate. I think that by narrowing the scope of the film, Reiner really allows himself to explore Johnson as a person instead of just relaying to us the events of his life. While I do like this choice, one thing I don’t like is how the timeline works. In the first 20 minutes of the film, we move from assassination day, to LBJ as majority leader, back to assassination day, to some random conversation in the woods about running for president, to assassination day, to the Democratic National Convention, and so on. After about half an hour, this jumping around stops and the story pretty much moves forward in time from there, but this was a little disorienting for me, especially since it happens right at the beginning.
One of the strongest points in the movie for me is Woody Harrelson’s performance. Right off the bat, he has the look. The makeup crew did a fantastic job with his face; he is barely recognizable as Woody Harrelson. From the first moment he is on screen, I believed him as LBJ, and was immersed in his performance. In the Q&A after the film, Rob Reiner said when they premiered the film in Texas, Johnson’s daughter was there. He talked to her after the film and she said that the man in the film was the man she knew in real life too. Even though I have obviously never met LBJ, I can see why she would think that. He does a great job showing a range of emotions dependent on particular scenes. His character goes through changes as the movie goes on, and Harrelson nails all of these changes. Not only is his performance good, but it is funny too. His comedic timing and delivery are clicking to the point where he could deliver with a straight face a line that you wouldn’t think is funny and get a laugh from the audience.
Aside from Harrelson, the performances are solid, but overshadowed. As Robert Kennedy, Michael Stahl-David gives a convincing performance as the antagonist of the film. As Lady Bird, Jennifer Jason Leigh makes the most out of her screen time, as does Bill Pullman as Senator Yarborough. In my opinion, both of these characters are underused, but when they are on screen they are really strong. I am not a huge fan of Jeffrey Donovan as JFK, however. He barely has the look of JFK, let alone the voice. Now, I’ll concede that it’s hard to live up to someone as well-known and liked as John F. Kennedy, but even still, I feel like it leaves something to be desired.
I think this film does a good job painting a portrait of LBJ, a politician many don’t know all too well, as not only a politician, but as a human being as well. I also appreciate that the film has plenty of humor in it. It isn’t laugh-out-loud funny most of the time (although Harrelson does have his moments), but was enough to entertain me. Here is where my own personal bias against political dramas comes into play. I thought it was a little dull. There, I said it. Now, could it have been duller? Absolutely! The fact that I was even mostly entertained is a true testament to this film because, as I lead with, this is not typically my genre of choice.
Overall, while this film isn’t perfect, it does a great job of not only entertaining, but teaching its audience about a man who is often overlooked by history and deserves more praise than he gets. Despite not-so-great pacing and some underused performances, one very strong performance and a lot of heart make this film an overall good watching experience. With LBJ, Rob Reiner proves that, despite having received a lifetime achievement award from Heartland, his career is far from over.