Bryan Cranston As LBJ in “All the Way” (Short Review)

HBO’s movie adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s play about the early presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson is worthwhile viewing for largely one reason, Bryan Cranston in the lead role. With some help from make-up designer Bill Corso, Cranston gives the viewer what it might have felt like to have been around Johnson while he struggled with the major issues of those years.

The movie begins with Johnson’s rise to the presidency when John F. Kennedy is killed, focusing on Johnson’s advocacy for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the escalating war in Vietnam amidst his worries about the next election. As Johnson, Cranston captures the brilliance, vulnerability, insecurities, compassion, and vulgarity of Johnson, one of the most complex people to have ever lived in the White House.

All the Way features a number of outstanding performances, such as Frank Langella as Senator Richard Russell, Antony Mackie as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover, Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson, and Bradley Whitford as Hubert Humphrey. One criticism, which others have noted too, is that there is too much material and too many interesting characters for one 132-minute movie. Other important people come and go in the story, but director Jay Roach remains focused on LBJ while viewers may also want more.

Ultimately, it is not Roach’s fault that this era was rich in important events and people. As in the case of Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal in Lincoln (2012), Cranston’s portrayal of Johnson is so compelling that it made me wish for a much-longer mini-series that revealed more details of events and more layers to the former president.

Yet, for a one-shot movie that tries to convey the essence of the time and LBJ’s years between Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s election as president in his own right, All the Way is worth your time, even if sometimes it deviates from the historical record for dramatic effect. Cranston’s portrayal of Johnson will be remembered as one of the great presidential roles, and the movie does an excellent job at making Johnson a three-dimensional character with the mix of both majestic strengths and deep flaws.

What did you think of “All the Way”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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