American historical figures are often remembered by the masses through their most iconic pop cultural representations. Sometimes, if said figure was a culture-maker themselves, like Marilyn Monroe, she will be represented by her own image. Other times, like in the case of Richard Nixon, popular history will characterize the sweatiest, jowliest, most criminal parts in order to make a cartoon out of a crook. (Ask a 25 year old to do an impression of Nixon and they’ll actually do an impression of Billy West performing Nixon on Futurama.) For accidental president Lyndon B. Johnson, a perennial goofball who played a role in Civil Rights legislation, it will be a single dramatic performance. LBJ will be remembered as Bryan Cranston depicts him in the new HBO film All The Way.
HBO’s presidential biopic depicting the first days of America’s 36th president (adapted from a Broadway play of the same name) is a fantastic collection of character portraits. Named after the 1964 campaign slogan of Lyndon B. Johnson, “All The Way With LBJ,” All The Way begins with the accidental president’s inauguration in the wake of the 1963 JFK assassination and follows him through to his official election win just over a year later. A little plodding in terms of pacing, and lacking the edge to tackle its difficult source material in any relevant way, it’s not an HBO special that will change your opinions on anything important, but All The Way is at least another showcase of Cranston’s formidable acting chops.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. Stephen Root plays a deliciously demented J. Edgar Hoover in a villainous turn to be proud of, Melissa Leo’s Lady Bird Johnson is uncanny in her archetypal accuracy, and I found Marque Richardson magnetic as civil rights activist Bob Moses. Most of all though, Anthony Mackie steals the show with his performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who finds himself all too often at the mercy of President Johnson’s strange, if well intentioned political compromises.
It is in those compromises that All The Way finds its most interesting material in terms of actual story. The film is ostensibly about passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it’s the conflict surrounding that bill that brings out the best performances of the actors. The struggle within the hearts of strong idealists on the screen as they’re forced to conform to the pace of American history’s slow crawling towards racial equality can be excruciating, especially on the faces of the film’s Black characters. When All The Way is about race, it works.
But All The Way doesn’t go far enough. Sure, there are moments of heated political discussion—empathetic moralizing turned red hot by the racial landscape of the time—but the film’s prerogative is to make LBJ into a great man, and that never sticks given the subject matter. Johnson comes off as many things. He’s well intentioned, sincere, crafty, honest(-ish), and most of all he’s weird. But a great man? No. Yet, via voiceover and by so closely aligning him with Dr. King, the film is constantly framing him as a civil rights hero.
Most of the conflict of the movie pits a white goofball with everything to prove against a cavalcade of frowning white supremacist villains with everything to lose. But the real people fighting and dying for the cause are relegated to the role of plot devices. What seems like it was meant to be a movie about how an eccentric Texan helped win Black people rights in the wake of the JFK assassination only manages to depict how a self-righteous but well intentioned white guy won a federal election by removing the right to vote from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. LBJ does heinous things in All The Way at the expense of Black characters—not least of which is authorize J. Edgar Hoover’s warrantless and perverse harassment of Dr. King—but at worst he comes off as some weird, unimpeachably wise man who takes meetings on the toilet, seems obsessed with his initials (every member of his family, including his dog, has the initials LBJ), and drives a car that is also a boat.
By failing to truly engage with the civil rights story in a compelling way and focusing simply on Johnson’s journey towards presidential relevancy, All The Way struggles with pacing. It feels longer than its two hour run time, and the ending seems incomplete. A more focused story might achieve catharsis given the historical source material, but in the absence of actual engagement with the violence and pain of those affected most by LBJ’s presidency, what we’re left with is simply a vehicle for some damn fine acting and a cultural touchstone with which to remember one of America’s oddest presidents.