Review: LBJ (TIFF 2016)

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

PLOT: The story of Lyndon Baines Johnson (Woody Harrelson) during the Kennedy years through to his eventual swearing-in as president following the JFK assassination, and his difficult first year in-office as he struggles to pass the Civil Rights Act.

REVIEW: Sitting through the end credits of Rob Reiner’s LBJ, I had to double-check the copyright date to make sure it was actually made in 2016 and not 1996. This feels so much like warmed-over Oscar-bait from the mid-nineties it's remarkable, from the garish make-up, to the maudlin attempts to make the central figure likable, to the over-earnest, omni-present Marc Shaiman score. Next to something like Pablo Larrain’s JACKIE, which covers the same events, it feels downright archaic, and that’s not even the worst comparison it’s going to have to face.

woody harrelson lbj

LBJ comes hot on the heels of Jay Roach’s HBO Johnson biopic, ALL THE WAY, which saw star Bryan Cranston recreate his uncanny, Tony-award winning portrait of the late president from the hit Broadway play. That film, which covered the same ground (LBJ trying to pass the Civil Rights Act) came-and-went without too much of a peep this summer, but it’s the definitive screen portrait of the president with the uncanny make-up and gritty Cranston performance. By contrast, this is the after-school special version.

It could have been good. Being a feature, Reiner could have gone all-out and tracked LBJ all the way through his controversial presidency, but the darker aspects of his run (the escalation of the war in Vietnam and his decision not to run for a second term) only get mentioned in the hasty text epilogue. Otherwise, it’s a glowing portrait of the man, with Harrelson playing him as ornery but lovable, fighting for ice cream with Richard Jenkins’s segregation-loving southern senator, and sass-mouthing his staffers. In short, he’s a cartoon despite Harrelson’s best-efforts, making Reiner’s film seem like the INFAMOUS to ALL THE WAY’s CAPOTE (lest we forget 2005 had dueling Truman Capote biopics).

woody harrelson jennifer jason leigh lbj

The makeup certainly doesn’t help. Harrelson doesn’t look a thing like LBJ, but in an effort to make us forget that he wears mask-like makeup that’s wholly unconvincing. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s make-up job (she plays Lady Bird) is particularly garish and distracting. In fact, its the Kennedy’s who fare well here as at least the actors don’t have to wear prosthetics, with Jeffrey Donovan excellent as JFK (interesting as he played Robert in J. EDGAR) in what’s certainly the film’s best performance. As RFK, CLOVERFIELD’s Michael Stahl-David avoids channeling the Kennedy accent (as opposed to Donovan – who goes all-in) but still gives a memorable performance. However, Reiner’s portrait of Robert is certainly contrary to popular belief, with him being depicted as somewhat of a petulant child, who serves as a weird kind of semi-comic foil to LBJ early-on. In some ways, RFK is the bad guy here to LBJ’s underdog good guy – a controversial choice to say the least.

At times, LBJ manages to entertain, as the events being depicted are so absorbing they can’t help but not be, even if key figures like Martin Luther King are completely ignored (how can you make an LBJ movie without King?). At ninety-six minutes, it also winds-up feeling like a rushed, minor effort, with interesting characters and performers, like Rich Sommer as Pierre Salinger and Bill Pullman as Ralph Yarborough barely getting any screen-time at all.

Coming-out so soon after ALL THE WAY, Reiner was always going to be fighting an uphill battle getting LBJ to be taken seriously, but it doesn’t help that the film’s focus is so narrow as the bigger story of LBJ’s presidency has – as of yet – been left untold. As it is, this is a film wholly out-of-step with the more innovative films made about the period, and something that feels left over from another era of movie-making.




Viewer Ratings (0 reviews)

Add your rating


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.