Lyndon B. Johnson, one of American history’s larger-than-life characters, finally comes alive on the screen in the HBO movie All the Way. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Trumbo) is the first actor who captures LBJ in all his facets – a man who was boring and square on television but frenetic, forceful and ever-dominating in person. All the Way traces the first year in LBJ’s presidency, when he ended official racial segregation in America with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
LBJ was obsessed with gaining and keeping political power, and he was utterly ruthless and amoral about the means to do that. His tools of persuasion included deceit, flattery, threats, promised benefits and horse-trading. He was equally comfortable in playing to someone’s ideals and better nature as well to one’s vanity or venality. In All the Way, we see one classic moment of what was called “the Johnson treatment”, when LBJ looms over Senator Everett Dirksen, and it becomes inevitable that Dirksen is going to be cajoled, intimidated or bought off and ultimately give LBJ what he wants.
LBJ was so notoriously insincere that one of the joys of All the Way is watching LBJ tell completely inconsistent stories to the both sides of the Civil Right battle. Both the Civil Rights proponents (Hubert Humphrey and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the opponents (the Southern Senators led by Richard Russell) must determine whether LBJ is lying and to whom. Each of them must make this calculation and then bet his own cause on his perception of LBJ’s real intentions.
But LBJ amassed power for two reasons – he needed to have it and he needed to do something with it. Along with the LBJ’s unattractive personal selfishness and the political sausage-making that some may find distasteful, All the Way shows that Johnson did have two core beliefs that drove his political goals – revulsion in equal parts to discrimination and poverty. We hear references to the childhood poverty that led to the humiliation of his father, to the plight of the Mexican schoolchildren in Cotulla, Texas, that he mentored as a young man, and his outrage at the discriminatory treatment suffered by his African-American cook Zephyr.
Bryan Cranston brilliantly brings us the complete LBJ – crude, conniving, thin-skinned, intimidating and politically masterful. Besides Cranston’s, we also see superb performances by Melissa Leo as Lady Bird, Anthony Mackie as MLK, Bradley Whitford as Hubert Humphrey and Frank Langella as Richard Russell.
All the Way is remarkably historically accurate. It does capsulize some characters and events, but the overall depiction of 1964 in US history is essentially truthful. As did Selma, All the Way drills down to secondary characters like James Eastland and Bob Moses. We also see the would-be scandal involving LBJ’s chief of staff Walter Jenkins, a story that has receded from the popular culture. Vietnam is alluded to with a reference to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which is fitting since Vietnam grew to become LBJ’s nemesis and the national obsession only after the 1964 election.
All the Way was adapted from a Broadway play for which Cranston won a Tony. I saw three movies in theaters last weekend and none of them were as good as All the Way. LBJ’s 1964 makes for a stirring story, and All the Way is a compelling film. Seek it out on HBO.