Bryan Cranston won a Tony for playing Lyndon Baines Johnson in the Broadway production of Robert Schenkkan’s historical drama about the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, All The Way. And it’s not hard to see why. The play’s Johnson is the type of outsized real-life figure—complete with ready-built Southern bluster and penchant for earthy speechifying and monologuing—that suits Cranston’s deliciously hammy side perfectly. The HBO film version, directed by Recount’s Jay Roach (who also directed Cranston’s similarly bombastic turn as the title character in Trumbo) translates the play’s depiction of Johnson’s deceptively wily steamroller approach to politics as essentially a one-man show, a debatable but nonetheless entertaining lionization of LBJ-as-civil-rights-hero. If Cranston’s performance rides over some of the subtleties of the process in favor of Cranston gobbling up the scenery in his Johnson prosthetics (which make him look uncannily more like fellow actor Richard Jenkins than Johnson at times), the film’s exhumation of a more-relevant-than-ever social and political fight makes All The Way seem cannier than it is.
The film opens with Johnson on Air Force One alongside JFK’s body, Johnson’s sudden elevation to, as he terms it, “accidental president” seeing him thrust in the midst of the stalled Civil Rights Act fight. The film nods perfunctorily toward the growing hostilities in Vietnam and Johnson’s planned “War on Poverty,” but the civil-rights fight is presented as his most pressing priority. All Or Nothing comes to HBO in a time when: one political party is at war over its core values (and its impending nomination of a candidate many see as deeply dangerous); where the very voting rights protections shown being argued in the film have been overturned by the Supreme Court; where there is the very real prospect for contentious convention floor fights; and where conservative politicians cite states’ rights as justification for individuals’ exemption from anti-discrimination laws. There are a lot of resonances to be found in All The Way that enliven the drama—even when the film rests too heavily on the star turn at its center.
The promotional materials for All The Way frame it as a two-handed showdown between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., but the film is unequivocally LBJ’s show. Anthony Mackie makes a creditable King, speaking in measured tones commensurate with the seemingly incompatible roles of moral leader and politician. As presented here, King is elder statesman of the movement, attempting to rein in younger activists like Marquee Richardson’s Bob Moses and Mo McRae’s Stokely Carmichael—whose impatience with King’s methods lead to more direct and provocative action. And, he’s also, in Johnson’s eyes, hardly more sophisticated than they when it comes to actually affecting change. Indeed, All The Way, in keeping with its thesis that passing the Civil Rights Act was the product of Johnson’s political acumen, goes to great lengths to chop at King’s knees.
Time and again, King is dressed down by powerful white men like Johnson, Bradley Whitford’s Hubert Humphrey, and UAW president (and major civil rights movement sponsor) Walter Reuther, for not seeing the big picture and the need for compromise and patience—that all his frontline activism and high-minded rhetoric are getting in the way of well-meaning white men who know how the world really works. Mackie’s restrained, thoughtful take on King might be a considered choice to demythologize a man whose message and actions are often reduced to facile symbolism—if All The Way didn’t consistently render him largely impotent. (The film’s ending notice that Johnson and King teamed up the next year to pass even stronger civil rights legislation inescapably suggests that King took Johnson’s lessons to heart.) The one scene that seems primed to let King’s oratory soar—preparing to speak at the funeral of murdered “Freedom Summer” activist James Chaney—sees King’s eulogy interrupted by a more militant activist, whose impassioned call to confrontation leaves King silent, and forgotten.
Indeed, the black civil rights leaders in the film suffer the same fate. When Humphrey—delivering Johnson’s compromise that two delegates (one white) from the activists Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party be seated at the contentious Democratic National Convention—dresses down Moses and Carmichael for objecting to the word “token,” his heated “Don’t twist my words!,” echoes the film’s patronizing attitude toward its black activists. Summing it up, it’s essentially, “Don’t be so emotional about the horrifying daily injustices you face, black America—the nice white people have got things in hand, if you’ll only trust us.”
“All The Way With LBJ” was Johnson’s election slogan, and it’s All The Way’s guiding principle. Which isn’t to say that Cranston’s Johnson doesn’t do his damnedest to make the case for going all in behind the film’s garrulous, gallumphing, good old boy president. Cranston makes a meal of every scene he’s in, ticking off Johnson’s well-storied, outsized eccentricities with performer’s glee. Johnson is crude—bragging about his legendarily big dick, telling dirty, down-home anecdotes, abruptly firing one secretary and demanding another “with a little meat on her,” swilling whiskey, referring to the “nigras,” and forcing poor Hubert Humphrey to talk policy while the pres is perched unceremoniously on the Oval Office crapper. (Whitford’s soon-to-be Vice President Humphrey, presented as the epitome of bookishly ineffectual liberalism with his high whine of a voice and Merkin Muffley demeanor, is Johnson’s constant punching bag.) And Cranston attempts to bring Johnson down to earth by showing how, when feeling thwarted or abandoned, Johnson sinks into childish ranting about conspiracy theories against him, or simply crawls into bed and mopes.
But the film contends that—along with his canny knowledge of governmental procedure and talent for manipulating the more pragmatically political-minded—it’s Johnson’s bullying idealism that makes him so effective. Buttonholing much smaller swing vote Senator J. William Fulbright in an elevator, Cranston’s Johnson looms over the sweating senator, making seemingly innocuous small talk around his argument, and finally forces a gift of irreplaceable presidential cufflinks on the cowed man. (He tells the Secret Service agents waiting outside that he’ll need some replacements.) When procedural maneuvering and bullying don’t work, Johnson repeatedly falls back on direct appeals to his targets’ humanity, giving Cranston an opportunity to plead with a naked urgency that no doubt contributed to his Tony success.
The film’s 134-minute running time proceeds in fits and starts, its jumps forward as the 1964 Civil Rights Act stumbles toward eventual passage less economical than artless. Sure, there are a lot of players in the drama surrounding the bill, but the helpful onscreen labelling of each meticulously styled real-life figure reads like perfunctory storytelling shorthand. The supporting actors are mostly reduced to playing one-note props to Johnson’s towering presence (and Cranston’s similarly scene-stealing performance). But, in the able hands of vivid actors like Ray Wise (as flexible Republican Senator Everett Dirkson), Ken Jenkins (cantankerous old-school racist Congressman “Judge” Smith), Stephen Root (as a toad-like J. Edgar Hoover, creepily obsessing over King’s politics and infidelities in equal measure), and Toby Huss (Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson), the notes are at least entertaining. Melissa Leo has the thankless task of playing the stalwart Ladybird Johnson, whose few monologues asserting her unwavering support of her embattled, sometimes cruel husband war with the fact that her role is mostly to fret about Lyndon’s health at regular intervals. (She’s always urging him to eat something.) There’s also a pile-up in the film’s second half, with the murders of Chaney and white activists Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, the wrenching testimony of beaten voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (a powerful Aisha Hinds), the sex scandal of dedicated Johnson aide Walter Jenkins (Todd Weeks), and even the Vietnam War-escalating Gulf of Tonkin incident quickly disposed of in order to keep the focus on Cranston in Johnson’s run for re-election.
The one actor in the film who approaches Cranston’s presence, unsurprisingly, is Frank Langella, who, as “Dixiecrat” civil rights obstructionist (and longtime Johnson mentor) Senator Richard Russell (aka “Uncle Dick”), brings his signature hooded menace to the role. As in his current role of avuncular Russian “fixer” on The Americans, Langella’s mellifluous, watchful gravitas makes Russell’s championing of the Southern way of life, and rejection of the more public racism of Smith and Randy Oglesby’s odious Strom Thurmond (railing against “Congolese savages”), at least mournfully relatable. (“I’m not saying the Negro hasn’t been put upon,” he concedes to Johnson.) The scenes between the two Southern old-timers see both actors dancing around their irreconcilable and growing differences with often affecting subtlety—although their fights, growling with folksy allusion and significant glances are just as entertaining. Their final scene plays out over the phone—Johnson at his 1964 election victory party, Russell eating a lonely dinner in his kitchen—and sees the two exhaustedly attempting to assert that nothing has changed, when they both know nothing will ever be the same again.