The trip to the silver screen can be a challenge, with many pitfalls. After a film is written, there’s no guarantee it will be produced. The website Blacklist publishes a yearly listing of the best-liked scripts that didn’t have production deals. In 2014, that list had several screenplays that were successfully produced within the next three years. These included:
- Manchester-by-the-Sea, for which Casey Affleck won last year’s Best Actor Oscar
- 2016’s Money Monster, directed by Jodie Foster and starring George Clooney
- Gifted (2017) with Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer
- Michael Keaton’s biopic of Ray Kroc, The Founder
- A screenplay titled “In The Deep” which became the thriller The Shallows starring Blake Lively
- “Mena” which became the better-titled American Made with Tom Cruise.
It also had two 2017 duds: My Friend Dahmer (who doesn’t want to watch a serial killer’s struggle in high school? Apparently almost everyone), and The Wall, the Doug Lyman-directed sniper drama that made less than 2 million at the box office.
Somewhere in between the good and the bad is LBJ, a biopic of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The screenplay was picked up by Rob Reiner, who made one of my favorite political movies, The American President, though that screenplay was by the thoughtful and erudite Aaron Sorkin. Reiner handles the period piece details of the story beautifully, with assistance from Cinematographer Barry Markowitz (Sling Blade, The Apostle) and Production Designer Christopher R DeMuri.
Reiner and casting director Jane Jenkins assembled a first-rate cast, starting with Woody Harrelson in the title role. Harrelson went through two hours of makeup daily to look like LBJ, and he has a definite power in the role. Jennifer Jason Leigh does well as Lady Bird, as do Jeffery Donovan as JFK, his second time portraying a Kennedy. Donovan had been Robert Kennedy in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, making him the second actor to have portrayed both brothers (the first was Martin Sheen). Other actors include Bill Pullman, Richard Jenkins, and C. Thomas Howell. An outstanding performance is given by Michael Stahl-David as Robert Kennedy who’s in a Civil War battle with pro-segregationist LBJ.
Strangely enough, given its place on the 2014 Blacklist, the weakness of the movie is its script. Johnson was a massive personality and a polarizing character. Biographer Robert Cato has worked on the life of LBJ for over 40 years, and his original plan for a four-volume has expanded to five volumes, with the last one only about half-done at this point. Johnson was in the middle of the most tumultuous times of 20th Century America, and he was a master politician. But LBJ concentrates on only about 10 years of his life.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The outstanding Patton took place over the last four years of the general’s life, though of course that was in the middle of WWII. George C. Scott’s performance, though, gave you the feel for the man far beyond those years. On the other hand, you have MacArthur in 1977, starring Gregory Peck, which covered his service in WWII through the general’s dismissal during the Korean War. That movie comes across more as a pageant, showing him in action but not truly illuminating his character.
Once again with LBJ, it falls in the middle, not revealing the character like Patton, but doing it better than MacArthur. The script ping pongs through time at first, telling the story of Johnson’s legislative battles relative to JFK and his selection as Kennedy’s running mate while contrasting it with the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Following Kennedy’s assassination, the movie focuses on Johnson trying to cement both Kennedy’s and his own legacy by passing Civil Rights legislation.
Filming of the movie was done two years ago, and it was screened at 2016 Toronto Film Festival. However, 2016 also saw Bryan Cranston in the role of LBJ for the better received HBO film All The Way, which covered much the same territory. Cranston was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance. So LBJ sat on the shelf for the over a year before it was released, likely to give it separation from All The Way.
LBJ, though, zooms through the story since the film runs only a bit over 90 minutes. Overall, it gives the feel that the story’s a Reader’s Digest condensation. LBJ had a thick stew life, but the movie LBJ is more like thin soup that doesn’t satisfy.