Few films are as accessible as a Rob Reiner film. 'When Harry Met Sally', ‘The Princess Bride’, ‘A Few Good Men’, and ‘The American President’ are just a few of the movies on the director's filmography that audiences will be familiar with. The key word here is “accessible”. The dude even managed to take two dark and fucked-up Stephen King stories - ‘Stand by Me’ and ‘Misery’ - and gently massage them into films for mass audience consumption.
Reiner's latest film, ‘LBJ’, is a portrait of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson (Woody Harrelson, ‘Solo’), who was thrust from the Vice-President's chair to the Oval Office desk after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan, ‘Sicario’) on that fateful November day in 1963. With political battles on both sides of the aisle, Johnson works to heal a nation and secure his presidency by passing Kennedy's historic Civil Rights Act.
Written by Joey Hartstone, whose script was on the 2014 Black List, the film takes place between the years 1959-1963 and draws the audience backwards and forwards in time from LBJ's unsuccessful run for the Democratic Party nomination through JFK's assassination and ultimately through the President's fight for an Equal Rights Bill. The heart of the film comes from LBJ's battle within his own party - Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David, ‘Cloverfield’) is hardly a fan of the foul-mouthed Texan who was hand-picked by his brother for the Vice-President position. The two disagree on almost all political talking points throughout their tenures.
Also providing resistance to LBJ's forward thinking is Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins, ‘The Shape of Water’) from the state of Georgia. Russell is portrayed as a racist that does not believe that individuals of colour deserve the same rights and freedoms as all other Americans. LBJ does his best to try and win the trust of Russell, and LBJ walks the thin line of keeping Russell in the fold before he abandons his friendship with the Senator in his attempt to fulfil the inroads JFK had made in his equal rights efforts prior to his assassination.
Harrelson spent three hours each day in makeup - two to apply the prosthetics and one to remove them - and is barely recognisable as the title character, with big ears, pointy nose, a receding hairline and skin tone seemingly applied with a thick brush to ensure he resembles the former President. Far from being on the same transformative level as Gary Oldman’s Winton Churchill makeover in ‘The Darkest Hour’, it’s sub-Count Olaf from ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ stuff. At times, Harrelson looks less like a human being than one of the vulture-like Skeksis puppets from Jim Henson’s ‘The Dark Crystal’. It’s completely distracting, particularly in Harrelson’s scenes with Richard Jenkins who, in some ways, more closely resembles the real-life LBJ. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson is similarly encumbered with a proboscis so ridiculous than it makes Nicole Kidman’s sundial of a prosthetic honker from ‘The Hours’ look understated.
At times, Harrelson looks less like a human being than one of the vulture-like Skeksis from Jim Henson’s ‘The Dark Crystal’. It’s completely distracting, particularly in Harrelson’s scenes with Richard Jenkins who, in some ways, more closely resembles the real-life LBJ.
LBJ is obviously the focus of the film, but there is ample time given to JFK. The assassination in Texas is captured with valuable attention to detail - a key point in the life of LBJ, Rob Reiner takes the time to film it carefully (in Dallas, Texas exactly where the shooting took place). Jeffrey Donovan plays Kennedy with some subtlety, not attempting to overdo the much-parodied Boston drawl. Michael Stahl-David does a good job as Robert Kennedy, the opposite of the calm President, more headstrong and not afraid to voice his unwanted opinion. Jennifer Jason Leigh is... there... and delivers a couple of lines of dialogue in an unconvincing southern accent. Lastly, the usually great Bill Pullman delivers a weird and unneeded performance as Senator Ralph Yarborough.
As with all other Reiner films, ‘LBJ’ plays it safe. Audiences may learn a few things about the complicated man along the way (his crude language, how he would have meetings while sitting on the toilet, and his belief that he was not loved by either his inner circle or his country), but the film largely ignores the more intriguing aspects of his personality and career (a noted philanderer, he is only the devoted husband here and it is never revealed where Johnson stood on racial equality). Basically, LBJ is no ‘Lincoln’. Where the Spielberg film was well-written and a deep character study of both a political family and the system which they battled, ‘LBJ’ merely skims an incredible time in American history when the nation was emotionally shattered. Gritty, LBJ is not. In fact, it’s more in line with other recently released, ho-hum politically-flavoured films, like ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House’ and ‘Chappaquiddick’.
Safe entertainment can still be, well, entertainment and Reiner is a master at that craft. There is plenty of humour in the film to keep the characters interesting, and unfolding the story in a non-linear fashion works to maintain some interest. Yet 'LBJ' still feels like a film that thought it was something special when it actually never lifts off the ground.
Harrelson and Donovan and the hilariously bad make-up are the only draw cards in this lacklustre biopic that never delivers on its potential.