HBO’s political dramas have become biannual-ish events to dread: spineless, indistinct Emmy bait forgotten the minute they win their last Outstanding Television Movie trophy. This year, there are two: the incoherent Confirmation, which champions Anita Hill as a feminist heroine while (illogically) leaving open the possibility that Clarence Thomas isn’t guilty of sexual harassment; and the fast-moving but uninvolving All the Way, premiering this weekend, which fails to wring excitement out of the necessity of political compromise.
Opening hours after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, All the Way is a snapshot of Lyndon B. Johnson (Bryan Cranston) during his rocky first term, as the Texas native attempts to pass civil rights legislation that’ll alienate his Dixiecrat brethren while running for reelection. Were it not for the obligatory scene of Johnson speaking to his aides and allies while perched on the toilet, the film might be a useful teaching tool for history teachers who want to dedicate a couple of hours to the Southern strategy, which continues to color our political map.
The problem with HBO’s political dramas, especially the more recent, focused ones like Recount and Game Change -- which chronicle the 2000 and 2008 elections, respectively -- is that anyone who cares enough about politics to be interested by their premises will have a strong grasp of the general story line going in. So it is with All the Way, which finds Johnson torn between the Southern Democrats who threaten to defect from the party, represented in their most benign form by Georgia senator Richard Russell Jr. (Frank Langella), and Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie), whose calls for justice are as rousing as they are politically implausible. (Like Recount and Game Change, All the Way is directed by Jay Roach, who also helmed Trumbo, Cranston’s failed Oscar bid.)
Screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, who adapted the script from his Tony-winning play, offers up a mostly familiar Johnson. This LBJ is a Southern un-gentleman, the uncouth product of poor cotton farmers who could have been another good old boy but decided to embrace his humanist ideals without trading in any of his tactical ruthlessness. He may be willing to splurge all of his political capital on desegregation, but it never crosses his mind to stop calling his African-American supporters “niggras” every chance he gets. (To complete the do-you-remember-this-from-class checklist, the film mentions the “Daisy” ad and mini-scandal stirred up by animal rights groups after Johnson pulled on his beagle's ears.)
Unsurprisingly, Cranston, who won the play’s other Tony for his performance as LBJ on Broadway, is the main reason to watch. Cranston’s an actor who relishes the thunder and crash, roaring like a lightning storm when desperate for others to heed his existential bellows. The film is much less compelling when portraying Johnson as a Sorkin-esque Great Man who does everything right than when allowing the self-described “accidental president” to indulge his bratty, needy, tetchy whims. He flirts with cruelty when domineering his effete, leftist VP pick Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) and crosses over into the monstrous when he demonstrates his willingness to silence a voting rights activist or kill Vietnamese civilians to avoid sliding in the polls.
Mackie captures MLK’s calmly passionate grandeur, but the rest of the supporting cast has much less to do. Stephen Root’s J. Edgar Hoover is presented as a wild-card villain, but proves no worse than an Internet troll. Playing Lady Bird Johnson, Melissa Leo’s probably counting how much of her mortgage she’s paying for with each dutiful hug and supportive smile.
Like Lincoln, All the Way is a vote-counting-and-cajoling affair. And like that earlier film, it is a kinetic slog, stuffed with jargony arguments over clotures and convention delegates, that can’t make its steady movement toward its established endpoint worth the journey. The picture’s structurally mushy to boot, with a soft center that finds Johnson’s focus transitioning from pushing bills through Congress to securing the party nomination for the 1964 election.
Named after the campaign slogan “All the way with LBJ,” the film should feel more relevant, as we’re currently in the midst of another battle for the future of the Democratic Party. But because All the Way doesn’t bother to explore the complexities of Johnson’s compromises, the stakes feel strangely irrelevant, even if they’ve shaped our political world for the last half-century. “I had to drag [America] into the light, kicking and screaming every inch of the way,” Johnson says ruefully at the film’s conclusion, looking back at his fights with his fellow Democrats. “This is how new things are born.” Brusque and tender, paranoid and practical, Johnson captivates as the modern era’s midwife. But this is a birth of tallies and totals and a streaming of ticker tape, when we should expect flesh and blood and life.