Starring Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bill Pullman, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stahl-David, Jeffrey Donovan
So much has been made about Woody Harrelson’s extensive makeup to become President Lyndon B. Johnson in Rob Reiner’s latest film. It’s true, that the first scenes of the actor’s face are shocking and curious. Harrelson (Three Billboards, The Glass Castle) settles into the role like oil and water, never quite losing his own persona behind the mask. While this film certainly paints a different picture of the only president never to seek reelection, history buffs won’t find much in the way uncovered material. More intimate scenes between Harrelson and Leigh or Jenkins are where the true strength of the project lies. The editing choices are questionable, as the day of assassination is edited into Johnson’s succession from majority leader to vice president.
“I have zero intention of running for president,” Democratic Majority Leader Johnson (Harrelson) tells Bobby Kennedy (David) on a hunting trip. Flash forward to the primaries and the senator from West Texas can’t understand why he isn’t the party’s candidate. Eventually becoming Vice President for John F. Kennedy (Donovan), LBJ was determined to make the ceremonial position of VP more important. “Both sides need me,” he explained of his mediating role between the southern democrats and the liberals of Kennedy’s administration for the civil rights bill. LBJ never embraced Kennedy’s policies more than after his death, where he made it a mission to do the right thing in the face of tragedy, dedicating all his energy to ensure history would think well of him.
Reiner, no stranger to political films, struggles to keep his film relevant, which one assumes is the reason for the non-linear editing choice.
It’s too bad that the makeup in question here is distracting from Harrelson’s performance, because midway into the film, when he is taking the oath on Air Force One, his “not without Jackie” moment is a powerful scene. The biggest miscast role is Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson. It’s a toned-down version of the icon compared to recent portrayals from Beth Grant in Jackie or Oscar winner Melissa Leo in All the Way. LBJ screams low budget when the film must rely on special effects to bring the past to life, which only further hinders the audience ability to immerse themselves in this biopic.
Last year foreign filmmaker Pablo Larraín managed to not only make the story of Jackie Kenny relevant and interesting, but he redefined the biopic into an artistic psychological drama. Reiner is far more traditional, respected filmmaker from the 90’s, who over the years has failed to remain relevant in the world of cinema. The film suffers from a lack of invention, and over saturation of historical biopics, especially in the realm of politics. Once the 90-minute film gets Johnson in the Oval Office, it’s a rapid hurdle towards the end as the character becomes the more familiar role we have seen in other portrayals.
Despite makeup set-backs, Harrelson’s performance is admirable in a film that might have fared better in the late 90’s.