Director: Jay Roach
Writers: Robert Schenkkan (teleplay), Robert Schenkkan (play)
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo
Playing lead roles in biopics of Robert Mazur and Dalton Trumbo in The Infiltrator and Trumbo, respectively, hasn’t stopped Bryan Cranston pursuing parts and crafting his considerable talents which require him to transform himself, in spirit, into real-life characters. In All the Way, Cranston encapsulates the 36th President of the United in the harshest and most honest way possible.
Lyndon B Johnson has been portrayed on-screen before, ranging from movies like Forrest Gump to Batman: The Movie, as well as the prestigious Animaniacs. Numerous actors have also played the part including Michael Gambon, Liev Schreiber and, in an upcoming movie, Woody Harrelson. But enough was thought of the Tony-award winning play of the same name, written by the same author (Robert Schenkkan) and enough was thought of Cranston’s portrayal to warrant recreating the effort in HBO’s TV movie.
In the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, hastily sworn in Vice President LBJ takes control of the White House at a particularly tumultuous time. The United States is in the middle of a Cold War with the USSR, the country is still reeling from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets are winning in the space race, the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam is raging and the Civil Rights movement is gathering momentum, to which a sizable part of the country are deeply and violently opposed.
The film centres around LBJ’s attempt to push through meaningful civil rights legislation passed a barrage of stubbornness, ignorance and intolerance in Washington. The most notable barrier to a bill being passed is Senator Richard Russell (Langella) of Georgia who, among other Dixiecrats and Good Ol’ Boys, may abandon the party if it succeeds. Their citing of ‘Southern traditions’ are a thinly-veiled smokescreen of contempt for any significant change to the way Black voters are registered in the South.
It seems as though for the bill to come to fruition, LBJ may have to sacrifice the purity of its original intent to secure the votes needed, much to the chagrin of a certain Martin Luther King Jr (Anthony Mackie). MLK, desperately trying to appease a disenfranchised and oppressed people, is vehemently opposed to diluting the original content of the bill with several amendments.
Caught in the middle is LBJ. Trying to do what is right and losing out completely are what’s at stake. Heightened racial tensions and escalating violence towards African Americans for standing up for their beliefs are causing panic in the corridors of power. Further mayhem ensues when three civil rights activists are murdered in Mississippi, prompting the President to trick the Director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, into investigating the crime.
There are a number of very interesting aspects investigated throughout All the Way which has never really been explored before on film. Firstly, this is not a fond (or even comfortable) look back at the President. We aren’t emotionally invested in the character. He’s brash, bullying and mostly unpleasant. But that’s kinda the point. Cinema is littered with affectionate portrayals of history’s greatest men and women. Here, we aren’t emotionally in the character’s character, but in his beliefs. And that’s only right. LBJ is not remembered with the affection history has for JFK, the admiration for Lincoln or the stoicism of FDR. Johnson, in his own words, is America’s “accidental President”.
Bryan Cranston is becoming something of a master of playing real-life characters. He excelled in both the Infiltrator and Trumbo, the latter of which saw him embodying the persona. And that’s what we’re getting here. Much like Michael Sheen’s turns as Kenneth Williams, Tony Blair, Brian Clough and David Frost, this isn’t a performance or an impression of a man. He becomes LBJ, not by imitating the accent or wearing the glasses, but by affecting his mannerisms and being as dismissive and blunt as the real man through his body language, not the memorised words from the script.
Martin Luther King Jr is often portrayed as a confident, statesmen-like character (and quite rightly), seldom wavering from his beliefs and always knowing the right path. Anthony Mackie’s performance here is something quite different. He shows us a vulnerable MLK. Here he’s unsure, conflicted and more than a little lost. It would be a tragic understatement to say that it was a brave choice, by both the actor and director, to pursue this path. Mackie brings us a realism that’s so often overlooked in real-life portrayals.
The film also does something rather unique. It connects the dots cinematically, if not historically. Mississippi Burning, Selma, JFK and Jackie are just a few of the films where we know the story of everything else about such a tumultuous time is US history. This is the story that isn’t often told. Maybe it was deemed less poignant than the senseless and hate-filled motives of the murder of three people who protested for a better world. And it might be fair that LBJ’s story be overshadowed by that of the events in Selma. However, this is the story that needed to be told. The bigotry at that time wasn’t confined to Mississippi or Alabama. It was also in Washington. It was in the beliefs held by Senators, Governors and Judges.
Why this film was made at this time may be of note to some who might see comparisons between then and now. That’s not for this reviewer to say.