It’s not enough that the sitting president will hate Rob Reiner’s LBJ, but that’s not nothing, either. Here’s a portrait of a resolutely unlovable vulgarian who, due to a cruel accident of history, ascends to the Oval Office. But it’s the distinctions that will sting: In the opening moments, a sketch-comedy burlesque in which the then–Senate majority leader wrangles votes for a bill, Lyndon Baines Johnson (Woody Harrelson) curses a blue streak, harries a subordinate with talk of slicing his “2-inch pecker” and places a phone call to his own tailor, requesting slacks the color of “powder on a woman’s face” that have some extra give in the crotch to accommodate his bigger-than-Texas cojones. You can hear the real Johnson make a longer and much funnier version of that call, to the president of Haggar slacks, on YouTube, and hearing it today, the year after the current president hammily insisted in a televised debate that he’s totally well hung, is a revelation: Johnson was a vulgarian with some poetry to him.
From there, LBJ plays as a study in contrasts. Rather than just waste it on bragging, Johnson turned that big mouth of his to politics, to dealmaking and legislation, proving a uniquely effective chief executive, just as he had proven himself a master of the Senate. Eventually, he fought against the racists in his party.
So, the movie is cheering, in its way, which is different from being good. Covering just a couple of years of a president’s life, and building to the climactic passage of significant legislation, LBJ is assembled on the chassis of Lincoln but, rather than soul, it runs on flop sweat. Despite its frequent dreadful flashes to the motorcade parading President John F. Kennedy through Dallas, Reiner’s film, like most Reiner films, is mostly a frothy patter comedy, its chatter worked over so that scenes bounce from joke to joke. A West Wing full of straights are forever setting up the hero to snap back with a punch line. Worse, Reiner seems worried at every moment that we might not follow what’s going on, despite the reductive simplicity of most scenes, so his characters baldly explicate every theme or idea. Early on, an aide insists to another aide, “He’s the best Senate majority leader this country’s ever had. He works harder than —.” On and on it goes, as if we hadn’t seen, just a few minutes earlier, Johnson working that hard, being that leader.
Those aides are confounded as to why Johnson, whom we’ve seen glowering about those dashing young Kennedys, keeps delaying announcing himself as a candidate in the 1960 presidential election. Just in case you haven’t worked it out yet, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) comes in to tell the boys, “He’s afraid. He’s afraid that people won’t love him.” Since he’s the son of Carl Reiner, the longtime comedy partner of Mel Brooks, I feel reasonably confident in guessing that Rob Reiner has seen the moment in Spaceballs where Rick Moranis’ Dark Helmet listens to a henchman detailing everything they already know about their villainous plan and then turns to the camera to ask “Everybody got that?”
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That’s the sum of it: LBJ is more Spaceballs than Robert Caro. As Johnson, Harrelson wears makeup that suggests a strapping Bob Hope more than the hangdog look of the 36th president. He’s given too little room to inhabit Johnson, to reveal to us the man’s drift of mind. Instead, he’s continually performing greatest-hits Johnson shtick, conducting a meeting from the toilet, with the bathroom door open, or laying into an anecdote about the biggest “titties” he ever saw. “Power is as power does,” he says, at one point, out of nowhere, suggesting not the thinking of a master of politics but a Machiavellian Forrest Gump.
Reiner expects too little of audiences, seeming to assume that we’re interested in the idea of political machinations but that we couldn’t possibly track a vote count or the slow, grinding drama of congressional procedure. The hugely contentious 1964 Civil Rights Act passes here due to the magic of sustained montage, that Hollywood insistence that anything a movie hero desires can be achieved if, for a period of passing time near the end of the movie, the hero works at nothing but that.
Occasionally, Johnson breezily argues about civil rights with Georgia Sen. Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), a fellow Democrat who doesn’t share Johnson’s increasingly liberal views about race in America. In these scenes, Reiner relaxes, letting his actors dig into Joey Hartstone’s script, inviting us to imagine what two white Southerners’ one-on-one deliberations might have sounded like. Johnson, a rough-hewn smoothie, puts the touch to him. The first times, as he tries to get Russell to agree to integrate a new Lockheed factory, Vice President Johnson is friendly, even wheedling: “I’m not saying that you’re not right about this, but you need to do a little more.” Later, Johnson will reel off an impassioned speech about his personal hatred of racial injustice, but in these early scenes we’re invited to wonder: In his heart, is he still the segregationist sumbitch he was when he won his first elections? Is his interest in civil rights a matter of merely placating the Kennedys, who have elevated him to the executive branch? (Russell and Michael Stahl-David’s Bobby Kennedy are the only opponents of Johnson’s to get any real screen time, a deflating choice for a film about a man whose life was about manipulating complex, competing political relationships.)
But such ambiguity can’t for long infect Reiner’s feel-goodism. Despite a couple of rote mentions of Vietnam, and some minor quailing that maybe Johnson shouldn’t have taken the oath of office so quickly after Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ slips from an examination of a sometimes admirable leader into a hagiographic daydream, a fantasy of a father figure to save us all. That’s a matter of Reiner’s politics, of course, but even more so a matter of his instincts as a popular filmmaker: He’s offering us an American presidency to escape to.