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« Soundtracking: "The First Wives Club" | Main | Review: The Incredible Jessica James »
Wednesday
Aug022017

Yes No Maybe So: LBJ

 by Seán McGovern

Debuting at TIFF on September 9th and primed for a theatrical release on November 3rd, Rob Reiner's LBJ brings to life the story of the man who immediately succeeded John F. Kennedy, following his assassination.

Lyndon B. Johnson appeared on our screens twice last year, with Bryan Cranston in All The Way and John Carroll Lynch in a supporting role in Jackie. Reiner's film looks set to follow the Vice President as he navigates his way from tragedy to the Oval Office. For this LBJ we get Woody Harrelson at his brusque best, with what looks to me like a... prosthetic chin? And when actors get out the heavy make-up you know they mean busines...

But is there any reason why Woody Harrelson is conspicuously absent from Nathaniel's Best Actor Oscar Predictions? Check out the trailer.

 

YES

  • Rob Reiner's filmography may not exactly have a bonafide hit for a fair while, but he's shown with The American President that he can give heart to politics.
  • Woody Harrelson is a prestige actor and we rarely notice it. Do you really remember Geoffrey Rush's performance in Shine over Harrelson's in The People Vs. Larry Flynt?
  • Lyndon Johnson gave the USA the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid; his place in history - and the movies - is cemented.
  • Harrelson has a knack for making irascible characters likeable. Any President following Kennedy had big shoes to fill and this end up to be some very clever casting.
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ladybird Johnson. We would like something weightier for her, but the Oscars do love supportive wives.
  • Remember when the US President was a dignified statesman who could inspire the people?

NO

  • The trailer knocks you on the head with its own sense of weight and importance. The tinkly piano that breaks into crescendo.
  • It's a film where the only female characters seem to be wives. Yes, there is a large gender imbalance in politics, especially in the 60s, but noble films chock full of white men are losing momentum.
  • You just know that the role of Ladybird Johnson is not enough for the talents of JJL. She seems to be delivering her lines with the enthusiasm the role demands.
  • Everything about this feels like incredibibly earnest Oscar-bait and that can be disingenuous at times.
  • There seems to be so much in this trailer, but where is the Vietman War??
  • The not-so-transformative power of make-up. Where's J. Roy Helland when you need him?

MAYBE SO

  • Has LBJ already had his moment with Bryan Cranston? Is there an appetite for more?
  • Rob Reiner may be the director of A Few Good Men, Misery, This Is Spinal Tap and When Harry Met Sally but there might be a reason why he hasn't had recent hits to match his heyday.
  • At one point I couldn't tell Richard Jenkins and Woody Harrelson apart - maybe audiences will develop facial blindness while watching?
  • Could it be the case that the film gets a lone acting Oscar nomination? Who's it going to be?

Verdict: I'm afraid it's a NO from me. While there's undoubtedly a lot of talent involved in front of and behind the camera, this trailer makes the film seem like an overtly grand, noble and sentimental portrayal of Johnson. Good performances might not be enough to save the film from being drowned by its own sense of earnestness. 

Am I off the mark? Have your say in the comments below.

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Reader Comments (13)

Oooh yeah not sure about this one. I started to get disinterested with the fist slamming. Also Jackie so recently covered the assassination that seeing similar scenes (the plane swearing-in) again is feeling a bit redundant and offers unfavorable comparisons. Doing Kennedy is also tricky generally and I'm not sure Donovan is pulling it off with the accent.

I didn't even think about it while watching but you are so right about the Vietnam War's absence. Civil Rights leaders in the US were very vocal about the connections between domestic Civil Rights and the US's international wars. Perhaps the "I can only hope" line is gesturing toward it? (Because Vietnam arguably defined his presidency). Not going into the war would be very specious.

The tone of the trailer suggests that they're going for "flawed man on a righteous mission" earnestness which would not lead to a nuanced view of Civil Rights or Vietnam (and would be potentially cringe-worthy in terms of "timeliness"). On that note, do any Civil Rights leaders have important roles in a movie about passing the Civil Rights Act beyond a likely half-hearted/obligatory cutaway to something like MLK'S I have a Dream Speech, which would either be newsreel or invite bad Selma comparisons? If not... :/

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

Hmm, I'm a maybe so. I really HOPE this is good - I've been fascinated by LBJ my entire life, I've always liked Woody, and I've been rooting for Reiner to get his mojo back for the last 15 years. But yeah, not sure this is going to capture the full nuances of the guy, warts and all, and his complicated relationship with the civil rights movement. It's like the photo-negative of his portrayal in SELMA, and I'm not sure either take does him justice.

And you are so right about the Jenkins resemblance. It made me wonder how *he* would have played LBJ.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

My favorite movie of all time is Stand by Me. So I am a default YES

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTheBoyFromBrazil

Lady Bird Johnson was a great First Lady, an interesting woman in her own right, and one of our first public environmentalists. If Jennifer Jason Leigh is bored, that's her fault and Reiner's fault for not fully examining her as a human being. For goodness sake, look what Joan Allen and Oliver Stone did with Pat Nixon. Even Jane Fonda was able to add some life to Nancy Reagan in her brief cameo in The Butler.

Harrelson is a good actor, but this performance will undoubtedly stand in the shadows of Bryan Cranston's performance. It's undoubtedly better than Tom Wilkinson's performance in Selma, though (I still don't understand why Wilkinson was cast as LBJ - that didn't work at all).

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

This thing seems like it was made with a Hilary Clinton presidency in mind. Would have been pretty topical to have a movie about a president who was maybe not flashy and inspiring but who knew how to pull the strings to get things done and who had big ideas about making somewhat arcane systemic reforms.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMJS

Er, no. Was this film already deep in production before All the Way and Selma came out? Because why even bother in the shadow of those two movies. (A: Oscar-bait?)

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

No.

Looks corny and I generally hate American political movies. And FU to any movie that wastes great actresses like Leigh in the supportive wife roles.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNorman

I'm a pass unless Oscar mandates I see it. Harrelson is a fine actor, but this feels like something I've already seen after Selma, Jackie, and All the Way.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

I don't want to go against Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Richard Jenkins but.... Rob Reiner is a big no for me. Anything he's done after The American President is a big NO. Plus, I really fucking hate North which I can't believe I saw in the theaters.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

It'll sink under the weight of those heavy prosthetics. The faces in Planet of the Apes (the original) were more lifelike.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJames from Ames

No. no. no. Looks like the worst kind of dreary biopic. And I feel like I've seen enough Harrelson on screen this year already.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

nope. i lost interest so quickly i thought richard jenkins was bryan cranston

August 3, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpar

A Maybe so. I also want Reiner to get his Mojo back. He knows how to make great movies. What happened?

Harrelson seems destined for a Best Actor nomination for this. And it's certainly a fascinating time.

August 3, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

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