Classic TV Review: All The Way (2016)

Posted: June 3, 2016 in Drama
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All the Way

Lyndon Baines Johnson (Bryan Cranston) was sworn in aboard Air Force One on November 22, 1963, shortly after JFK was assassinated.  He considered himself the “accidental president” but almost immediately took on the daunting task of passing JFK’s civil rights agenda.  This promise immediately fractured the Democratic Party.  The Dixiecrats, Southern Democrats, led by Senator Richard Russell, (Frank Langella) are incensed that that Johnson would consider passing a Civil Rights Bill.  For their part, Martin Luther King, (Anthony Mackie) and Hubert Humphrey are unhappy that the voting rights portion of the bill is taken out of the bill, before it’s even voted on.  To complicate matters, F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover (Steven Root) is wiretatapping King.  Johnson gets the bill passed through the House of Representatives, but the bill is filibustered in the Senate by Russell and other Southern Democrats.  Johnson finally does pass the Civil Rights Bill, through a mixture of cajoling and arm-twisting, but problems still dog LBJ, the Democrats are still split, Civil Rights Activists Goodman (Nike Kolder) Schwerner (AJ Helfet) and Chaney (Carlton Waddy) are killed in Mississippi, African Americans like Fannie Lou Hamer (Aisha Hinds) want representation to the Democratic National Committee ,the Dixiecrats threaten to bolt again and Johnson worries that Barry Goldwater is going to beat him in the 1964 election. Can LBJ heal the fissures in the party, and won the 1964 Presidential election?

This is a great  movie, with great writing. The old adage about bills passing through Congress goes something like this:  It’s like sausage being made, everyone loves sausage, but no one wants to see how it’s made.  That holds true for the Civil Rights Act.  The same holds true for Johnson, he achieved some great things, just don’t ask how.  This movie shows how. This movie hardly lionizes Johnson, but it doesn’t make him a villain either, like Selma does.  To Johnson, the ends justify the means, and he sees the greater good of the Civil Rights Act and beating Goldwater, so he will do almost anything to get there.  The movie shows both the idealistic side of Johnson as well as the Machiavellian side, and does so effectively. And Johnson is taken to task in the movie, by King, by Humphrey, by Russell, by Hoover for all the contradictory positions he’s taken, so this is not a whitewash of Johnson by any means.

This is a fierce performance by Bran Cranston, complete with salty language.  He plays Johnson as someone with a warring duality within his own personality.  He would rage with moral indignation to friends and foes alike yet, he would weep with insecurity to his wife, and Cranston made both sides of this complex personality equally convincing. Unlike his performance in Trumbo, Cranston committed totally to the role, and made it his. He’s already won a Tony for this performance. Frank Langella also does an excellent job as Richard Russell, he is from NJ, but does a convincing Southern accent.  He plays Russell, as a calm, calculating Senator, who thinks he can maintain the status quo in Jim Crow laws.  It’s a nice contrast to the often bombastic performance by Cranston.  Melissa Leo plays Lady Bird Johnson nicely, she gets the inflections and mannerisms right, and sounds a lot like Mrs. Johnson. I wish the producers had gotten someone with a little more acting heft then Anthony Mackie to play King.  Mackie’s the right age, but doesn’t have the deep, resonant voice or the cadence of King’s speech patterns.  Perhaps Idris Elba, or Wendell Pierce would have been a better choice.

The direction by comedic director Jay Roach is good, the pacing is quick, but the use of news clips is unnecessary, the movie doesn’t need news clips to make it seem more authentic, but Roach gets mostly good performances from his actors, and ends on a relatively high note in Johnson’s career.

All The Way:  Watch Lyndon be the bane of his political friends and enemies alike.

 

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