There’s one moment of ingenious, culturally-nuanced expression in Jay Roach‘s All the Way, an adaptation of Robert Schenkken‘s Tony-award winning play of the same name. President Lyndon B. Johnson, played with studied grandeur by Bryan Cranston, is drunk and yelling at his presumptive, very liberal vice president, Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford), about how weak liberals are. When his inebriation seemingly leads him to park his car in a lake, the car turns into a motor boat of sorts and begins sailing across the waters. LBJ was what you would call a Dixiecrat, a Democrat from Texas who was handed the unenviable job of filling the shoes of John F. Kennedy after his assassination, and Roach’s film, as well as Schenkeen’s script, suggest that the loss of the Dixiecrats during the civil rights movement was at once inevitable and what led us to the new radical right.
I bring up the fact about how LBJ got into office because its how Roach opens his movie, with a slow pan in on the car that JFK was assassinated in, sitting blood-stained and empty outside the hospital where he was pronounced dead. It’s a striking shot, one of the best in Roach’s entire oeuvre, but it also betrays a noticeable lack of attention paid to how JFK’s assassination haunted LBJ. Instead, the film focuses on the stridently liberal agenda that JFK left LBJ with, particularly in regards to voting rights and desegregation in the African American community. His vow to pass a substantial civil rights bill in the House and Senate makes him a tenuous ally with Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie), and puts him at odds with old friends like Senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella), Strom Thurmand (Randy Oglesby), and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root).
The thrust of the film is LBJ’s maneuvering of the bill through Congress, leading to his re-election and a variety of other major, historical issues that the 36th President of the United States had to deal with during his terms. As a lesson on history, All The Way is passable, even lively at moments, but it’s also calcified by its repetitive, bloated discussions about the rights and wrongs of the civil rights movement and, more importantly, the two-party system of American government. The best lines go to Cranston, who clearly relishes the language, candor, and physicality of his character in every frame in which he appears, but beyond him, there’s no real sense of the conflictive character that denotes these real-life figures. As good as Mackie is in the role of King, the character is written as straight-laced and honorable, despite the fact that the film even touches on his infidelities.
Mackie’s King doesn’t have any real internal problems, no wrestling with himself and his indulgences, and the script paints his external conflicts in broad recognizable terms. In contrast, Root’s Hoover has none of the texturing or layers of the Hoover we saw in Clint Eastwood‘s miraculous J. Edgar, and is instead painted as a nervous, fearful weasel of a man. The writing only takes the time to make LBJ into a fully fleshed-out, complex creature, while everyone else is judged simply by Roach and Schenkken’s bland conception of moral codes. If you oppose civil rights, you’re a fool or a monster, who clearly never had a family that loved you, or friends who disagreed with your politics but loved you anyway. Unless, of course, that friend happened to be LBJ. And if you fought for civil rights, you are a hero, a victim, or a martyr, incapable of doing anything truly wrong or immoral that might show a different side of your vast inner life and complicated persona.
Langella’s Russell comes the closest to offering something akin to LBJ, but even he is painted primarily as a manipulator. Schenkken gives him one scene, however, that speaks to a wisdom beyond party politics. After LBJ gets his bill through Congress, through some expert scheming, Russell warns his friend, who calls him Uncle Dick, that this is the death of the Dixiecrats, and that the men and women who follow will not be open to compromise, will have no scruples, and will corrode the very system which we govern society through. It’s a not-so-subtle nod to the age of Drumpf that we are currently living in, as well as the Tea Party and the self-righteously white and privileged community at large, but it gets to the heart of what All the Way is about.
LBJ and Russell were men of character in Roach and Schenkken’s eyes, as were many of the Senators and political figures they worked with, whereas today’s politicians are, with little exemption, horrors from which nothing good or meaningful can come. LBJ’s refusal to bend – beyond giving up voting rights that African-Americans continue to fight for – was the final ultimatum, and his scheming left a lacerating mark that made Republicans distrust anyone but their own. As much as he could be a real son of a bitch, LBJ was a real moderate, one who believed in small government but who knew that, ultimately, you can only repress civil rights so much before your system collapses.
What All the Way is ultimately missing is a full sense of how the death of the Dixiecrats reverberated on personal terms, the reflective sense in both the liberals and the conservatives about what will follow and how their work will change. Roach and Schenkken go far too broad to see the small mechanics of political work, and unpredictable behavior of those who do it, that precipitated and proceeded the Civil Rights Act. We only see it in Cranston’s remarkable lead performance, and in its reflection in LBJ’s relationship with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson (the routinely excellent Melissa Leo). The result of all of this being that his opinion is the only one that carries any weight of experience and knowledge in the film’s overextended running time, despite the fact that there were plenty of distinct, knowledgeable perspectives to be heard from that weren’t in the oval office, even if that’s not always easy to accept or remember.
★★ Fair — Great Performances, Mediocre Movie