'LBJ': Offers Hope From the Past
Viewers uninterested in politics and American history probably won't enjoy the insight and philosophical ruminations ventured by director Rob Reiner in his savvy biopic, "LBJ." Detailing the momentous ebb and flow of the times just before and after the ascension of Lyndon Baines Johnson to the presidency of the United States in 1963, Reiner, working from a script by Joey Hartstone, studiously puts forth a thesis worthy of an honorary master's degree.
If it had new information about the man behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I'd of considered a Ph.D.
Now, I won't attempt to pull away those who would much prefer the couch, the football game, a six-pack, a family-size bag of barbecue potato chips and speculation as to who will and who will not kneel when the national anthem is played. I like a good bowl of chips myself, preferably with a bottle of grape soda. But pity is, they'll miss an eye-opening epiphany or two that just might make them better citizens. While Reiner paints a responsibly accurate portrait of both the man and the era, it's in the clever subtext where he realizes the true and noble purpose of history.
You see, just in case you don't remember or you weren't yet a taxpayer, good old Lyndon wasn't, well, quite the genteel sort of person we were accustomed to seeing in the Oval Office. In fact, to underline his legendary crassness, the movie makes a point of including the storied toilet scene. However, before you cite the present day and the greatest crassness the world has ever seen, note that the movie winkingly knows what you're thinking. For all his earthiness, there is never a moment when we doubt that LBJ was a devoted American.
True patriotism should of course be a given. So as LBJ switches from human steamroller to devious finagler to charmer-in- chief to get his humanitarian legislation passed, it is refreshing in that his ego is put to traditional heroic use, and not just in service to himself. It is end-justifies-the-means politicking in its finest form. Embodied in a superb performance by Woody Harrelson, we witness the talented governing experience, knowledge of history and gifted touch of altruism it takes to be a real dealmaker.
It is entertainingly reminded that we Americans have woven quite a story for ourselves; a sort of Greek myth wherein the Founding Fathers bestowed this light of liberty it has become incumbent upon us to keep burning bright. Not just for ourselves, mind you, but as a hope for the world. Call it an international version of looking out for the other guy. Even those sworn to tear us down would be sad to see the ideal they secretly envy dashed upon the scrap heap of virtuous ideas.
It is our vision, our chutzpah, our conglomeration of heritages and all that corny good stuff that they covet. If it never existed, you'd have to make it up, to give the human spirit something to hope for in the face of authoritarian rule. Hence it is sadly painful when the film details the tragic event that led to LBJ's near impossible challenge. Many Americans felt they were standing on a threshold of a dream, and then it was stolen from them. JFK was killed, and his seeming antithesis was charged with mending a wound that to this day has never really healed.
Reiner deals with the tragedy of Dealey Plaza via flashbacks and fast-forwards ominously interspersed into the scenario. It is the portion of the oral epic poem that has assumed its place in our consciousness. Though we still don't really know anything, except that conspiracy theorists have made a veritable career of it, it was doubtlessly the same Bad that has been trying to oust Good right from the beginning.
Harrelson sublimely etches Johnson's understanding of the resultantly complicated domestic agenda that would ultimately define his presidency. He is the master carpenter who, faced with a structure nearly shaken from its foundation, rolls up his sleeves and gives us a tutorial in social reform that might have even impressed Machiavelli. That it is all realized in the shadow of a grand heartbreak and, like Roger Maris' 61 homers, wasn't completely appreciated until history said so, further impresses upon us the fickleness that attends the human pageant.
Unfortunately for us and Lyndon Baines Johnson, life, as my Mom oft inversely noted, isn't all cream and peaches. After the printed epilogue affirms the President's great domestic legacy, it alas notes his failure, as Washington had warned, to beware of foreign entanglements. Almost 60,000 Americans died in Vietnam. Relating these facts and letting them fall where they may in the service of history, "LBJ" is A-OK.
"LBJ," rated R, is an Electric Entertainment release directed by Rob Reiner and stars Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Richard Jenkins. Running time: 98 minutes
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