‘LBJ’ Review: Intriguing Material Wrapped in a Tedious Biopic Cliché | TIFF 2016

     September 16, 2016

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Shot in Oscar-courting handsomeness and laced with little bursts of wit, LBJ feels like a throwback to the lucratively bland 90s portion of director Rob Reiner’s career, which was sadly not his finest hour. The movie of course dabbles in the life of Lyndon B. Johnson (who recently got another movie interpretation with Bryan Cranston) and it’s certainly a worthy story that feels entirely appropriate for the times. Unfortunately, the movie tends to flip flop between intriguing material and tedious biopic cliché, never quite succeeding as well as it should or its creators intended.

Woody Harrelson stars as LBJ under a rubbery make-up mask that takes a little getting used to. His performance is easily the best part of the picture. Fiery, vulgar, funny, passionate, and unpredictable, Harrelson seems to disappear into the role almost effortlessly and his excellent work helps overcome some unfortunate make-up. Rather than wasting time in a birth-till-death tale, Reiner wisely focuses in on LBJ’s years with the Kennedys, defined by bickering and ultimately the angry Texan carrying out some of JFK’s most important legislation.


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Image via TIFF

In between a repeated wrap around narrative set on the day of the Kennedy assassination (both these men are heading towards an unavoidable fate, get it?), we see LBJ defeated and then courted by the Kennedy administration. John (Jeffery Donovan) is aware of the value Johnson offers as a liaison between the progressive presidency and the caught-in-the-past Southern states. Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) on the other hand distrusts the old Texan immediately and they constantly feud.

The focus of the film is on the ground-breaking civil rights legislation that JFK conceived and LBJ pushed through. At first Johnson spends his time courting old southern friends (primarily embodied by Richard Jenkins’ Georgia senator) and gently pushing them towards accepting equality. When the assassination shoves LBJ unexpectedly into office, he makes a point of finishing the fight the Kennedys started, even if Robert does his best to sabotage his brother’s successor.

So, it’s an intriguing focus for an LBJ story filled with strong drama and political manoeuvering. Reiner teases out the long, slow, and often manipulative political process, showing how even good and just ideas require plenty of palm-warming and hoop-jumping. This outwardly strong, yet quietly fragile vision of LBJ is intriguing and the head-butting battles between the old guy and the Kennedys never ceases to amuse (Donovan and Stahl-David are both fantastic despite being stuck with those Kennedy accents that are tricky play as anything other than a party trick impersonation). Mixing in some vulgar humor suited to the swearing Texan protagonist, the film is at it’s best a delightfully offbeat presentation of a unique presidential story.

Unfortunately there are certain conventions and clichés that are practically a necessity in any mainstream Oscar-bait biopic produced on this scale and Reiner ultimately falls into all of them. There are far too many quietly pensive monologues where characters say aloud what the audience needs to hear to understand the movie’s tremendous importance, rather than anything resembling what actual human beings would say in those situations. And while LBJ and the Kennedys are fleshed out and eccentric characterizations, most of the other supporting roles are merely necessary plot devices or conflicting points of view lacking personality. Richard Jenkins and Jennifer Jason Leigh might be great actors, but ultimately they are playing “Gentle Southern Racist” and “Loving Wife” here, not actual characters and they struggle to make the roles feel human.


Then there’s the problem of perhaps overly simplifying LBJ and his legacy for the sake of cozy drama. While the man did indeed push forward that groundbreaking civil rights legislation, his most enduring legacies were Medicare and escalating the Vietnam War, which barely appear here beyond some tacked on concluding text. Granted a movie can only contain so much material and LBJ is already stretched out, but casting these sorts of things aside feels like a big oversight. In fact, Bill Pullman has a mysterious disappearing/reappearing role as a pro-war senator that feels like it was chopped down dramatically, so perhaps the war material exists on a hard drive somewhere rather than in the movie. Certainly the absence of that material makes LBJ far more lovable, if less compelling.

So LBJ is very much a flawed movie. However, it is flawed in the ways that almost all “important man” biopics tend to be. This isn’t exactly the most exciting or consistent genre out there and within the fairly strict limitations of the form, Rob Reiner has at least made something worth watching. It’s likely the best movie that he’s made in years (even if that isn’t saying much) and is worth a look for Woody Harrelson’s hilarious and moving portrayal alone. The flick will likely drum up a little awards season attention and then disappear from the public consciousness by the spring like most movies of this genre. That’s fine. At least it’s not a painfully ill-conceived viewing experience like far too many of these “celebrities play icons” fall season biopics. That’s actually quite a relief.

Grade: C+

LBJ does not currently have a release date.

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