Movie Review: ‘LBJ’ isn’t interested in a full portrait of our 36th President

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Kip Mooney // Film Critic

LBJ

Rated R, 98 minutes.
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stahl-David, Jeffrey Donovan

‘LBJ’ is both a product of its time, and also frustratingly stuck in the past.

With studios long abandoning prestige projects – or even modestly budgeted movies for adults – in favor of expensive tentpoles, projects like LBJ are one step above crowd-sourcing. This film has no less than six investors, including a Native American tribe, funding it. It’s got Academy Award-nominated actors and a well-known director, and it’s about a controversial U.S. president. If this was 20 or even 10 years ago, this would have been a high-profile project released around a holiday and given a full awards push. Instead, a small studio (Electric Entertainment) is giving it a small release on the same weekend as THOR: RAGNAROK and A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS.

Yet for all the modern ways in which it was made, LBJ is hopelessly old-fashioned. Featuring an outsized performance by Woody Harrelson (in his sixth movie of the year) under pounds of terrible make-up, this is yet another movie about a powerful leader that focuses only on his strengths and ignores his weaknesses.

Reiner’s movie features lots of speechifying and showdowns between power-hungry men. The director of A FEW GOOD MEN knows a thing or two about staging these scenes, in a way that hides just how small the film’s budget is. (It hasn’t been reported, but you can see they used the cheapest visual effects houses available in shots of a CGI Air Force One at Love Field Airport, and an Arlington National Cemetery that is clearly just a random park with CGI headstones.)

The film keeps the focus on LBJ has a cunning Senate Majority Leader and Vice President, using his good old boy charm and sharp mind to draw compromise out of the White House and Congress. He’s the best at navigating the progressive mindset of the Kennedy administration and the backwards thinking of the Southern Democratic bloc.

But the film gives only a passing mention to LBJ’s own racist rhetoric, which would give weight to his complicated conversations with Sen. Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), whom he tries to persuade to agree to the bare minimum of advancement for African-Americans. The scenes in which LBJ spars with Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) are even better, as they argue whether to force America into the right side of history or continue to accept piece-meal equality.

LBJ is never terrible, but settles for lionization when the man’s life demands to be explored in all its contradictions. It presents him as the champion of civil rights after JFK’s assassination, but gives the most damning and enduring part of his legacy (the Vietnam War) just a cursory mention in text before the closing credits.

The film took the same approach as Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN, which focused on that president’s wheeling and dealing to get a crucial piece of legislation passed. But while that film managed to touch just enough on Lincoln’s personal frustrations and humanity, LBJ doesn’t even scratch the surface. Lincoln also had an incredible supporting cast, whereas LBJ’s is mostly wasted.

To truly capture our 36th president, this should have been a mini-series. At a mere 98 minutes, LBJ just feels like a hagiography. To truly portray the man, this needed a wider canvas.

Grade: C

LBJ opens in theaters on Friday, November 3.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.