by Toby Woollaston
Hot on the heels of Chappaquiddick comes another American political drama that wades neck-deep into the complex machinations of America in the sixties. This time it retells the story of Lyndon B. Johnson’s untimely rise to power as a result of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The film’s title, LBJ, sardonically mimics Lyndon B. Johnson’s desire to emulate the acronym’d greats of the Oval Office (JFK, FDR, etc.). And despite sounding more like a new gender fluidity term for the twittered masses, his is an acronym that stuck.
As the film attests, Johnson was viewed by some in the office as a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a Democrat in name only who hearkened from the deep-seated Republican hotbed of America’s south. But as it turns out, he wasn’t quite the red-neck they had him pinned for, managing to eventually push through Kennedy’s controversial Civil Rights Bill, around which much of this film revolves.
Inches deep in facial prosthetics Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the divisive politician is surprisingly animated; a testament to Harrelson’s immense screen presence. The same can’t be said for Jeffrey Donovan, whose robotic portrayal of John Kennedy shows even less life than Harrelson’s inanimate hair-piece.
Director, Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men) has elected to dice his story up by inter-splicing the main action of LBJ’s political wrangling as vice president, with brief flash-forwards of JFK’s doomed cavalcade. The building tension is palpable as the cavalcade begins to pass recognisable landmarks that we’ve all seen in the historic footage of JFK’s death. The inexorable pull towards the catastrophic events that would put LBJ into the oval office makes for intoxicating viewing.
Unfortunately after such a solid build-up, Reiner slips into neutral for the film’s final stanza and seemingly loses interest in telling a compelling story. Despite the charismatic performance by Harrelson who skilfully walks the tightrope of moral quandaries and myopic determination, LBJ’s flat finish renders it a disappointing fizzer.
See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.