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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    RFK (and Aeschylus) on MLK Assassination

    At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr. At the time, the Civil Rights leader stood on the second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King died around an hour later at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

    Two months would pass before Ray was captured at London Heathrow Airport, but in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, devastated Americans rioted in many major American cities. Many leaders appealed to the country to avoid violence.

    Bobby Kennedy’s Appeal

    One of the leaders who asked for calm on the night of the assassination was Robert F. Kennedy. The presidential candidate heard of King’s death when he was on his way to a routine campaign rally in Indianapolis, Indiana.

    And, in those days before cell phones, the Internet, and Twitter, most people did not know immediately about King’s death. So, Bobby Kennedy knew that he would be breaking the tragic news to the largely African-American crowd.

    Kennedy stood on a flatbed truck and broke the news to the crowd in a short speech.  He invoked the the country’s history and the death of his brother John F. Kennedy. And he appealed to King’s message of nonviolence and love.

    Agamemnon by Aeschylus

    Kennedy also quoted the Greek dramatist Aeschylus from what Kennedy called his favorite poem.

    Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
    Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
    Until, in our own despair,
    Against our will,
    Comes wisdom
    Through the awful grace of God.

    Although Kennedy does not name the poem, the quote comes from Agamemnon by Aeschylus (lines 179-183). The poem, written around 458 B.C.E., is the first in a cycle of three plays by Aeschylus.

    The tragedy centers on King Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra, who was left behind while the king is off fighting in the Trojan War. The quote comes from an ode by the Greek Chorus.

    Translations of Agamemnon: A Misquote? 

    One struggles to imagine most current politicians being able to quote an Ancient Greek writer off the top of their heads. Some have noted that Kennedy’s quote is not completely accurate, detecting a pause in his voice and wondering whether he changed “despite” to “despair” intentionally or by accident.

    Of course, Kennedy is quoting a translation, and translations may differ too. Below is one of the most famous translations of Agamemnon by Edith Hamilton from 1930.

    And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget,
    Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
    And in our own despite,
    Against our will,
    Comes wisdom to us
    By the awful grace of God.

    The Hamilton translation is very close to Kennedy’s quote, and is likely the version he was recalling. A 1937 translation by Hamilton is significantly different (beginning “Drop, drop– in our sleep, upon the heart / Sorrow falls, memory’s pain . . .”).

    And this version by E. D. A. Morshead is much more different.

    In visions of the night, like dropping rain,
    Descend the many memories of pain
    Before the spirit’s sight: through tears and dole,
    Comes wisdom o’er the unwilling soul-
    A boon, I wot, of all Divinity,
    That holds its sacred throne in strength, above the sky!

    Impact of Kennedy’s Speech

    Whether or not Kennedy took some liberties with the quote, of course, is not important in light of the power of his heartfelt speech.  As he concluded, he asked, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

    Thirty-four cities erupted in riots after King’s death.  After Kennedy’s speech, Indianapolis did not. The video below recounts more about the assassination and Kennedy’s speech. Check it out.

    A little more than two months after King’s death, Bobby Kennedy was killed not long after midnight on June 6, 1968 in California after winning that state’s presidential primary.

    Photo of bust of Aeschylus via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Martin Luther King Jr. on “The Merv Griffin Show”

    Those who remember The Merv Griffin Show, which ran on TV in various forms from 1962 to 1986, remember that Merv Griffin often had interesting conversations with guests from a number of fields, not just entertainment. In 1967, Griffin sat down with Martin Luther King Jr. to discuss the Civil Rights Movement.

    In the segment, King joins Griffin and actor-activist Harry Belafonte in some discussion of King’s life, family, and the state of the world in 1967. We often hear King giving emotional speeches, but it is interesting to hear King laughing and talking in a relaxed conversation. Check it out.

    Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

    Leave your two cents in the comments. Image via YouTube.

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    Martin Luther King Jr.: “The Other America”

    On April 14, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Stanford University. During this time, which was about one year before King’s death, Dr. King’s movement addressed a range of issues, including race, Vietnam, poverty, and economic justice. This speech at Stanford would become known as “The Other America” speech, and King would continue to give various speeches on the theme for the next year.

    In the speech, King explained: “But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

    Yet, near the end of the speech, King still spoke of hope. “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right, “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right, “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne — Yet that scaffold sways the future.” With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

    A transcript of this speech is available here.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Tragic Civil Rights Hero Clyde Kennard

    On September 25, 1960, Clyde Kennard was arrested in Mississippi and charged with stealing $25 worth of chicken feed. An all-white jury then convicted the black man of the crime, and he was sentenced to seven years of hard labor at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, otherwise known as “Parchman Farm.” Kennard eventually would be released from prison after he was diagnosed with cancer and was near death, and he died on July 4, 1963. What makes the story especially tragic, though, is that Kennard had been framed with the theft only because he had tried to go to a white college.

    Kennard Sought an Education
    Kennard with his sister after being paroled in 1963

    Clyde Kennard had been born in 1927 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  After serving for seven years in the military, he completed three years of college at the University of Chicago.

    After three years into his political science major, though, his father died.  So, Kennard returned home to Mississippi to help his mother run the family farm.

    Back in Mississippi, Kennard wanted to complete his degree but he needed to go to a school near to the farm so he could help his mother. The only nearby college was the the all-white, Mississippi Southern College.  And state officials did not want a black man challenging the status quo.  Officials realized they might lose any challenge due to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

    Applications to Mississippi Southern College

    Kennard first applied to Mississippi Southern College in 1955.  But he was rejected on technical grounds because he did not have letters of support from prior graduates.

    Kennard applied to the school again in 1958.  This second time he withdrew his application after civil rights leaders persuaded him to withdraw.  They had concluded it was not the right time to try to integrate the school.

    Then, Kennard tried again to apply to the school in September 1959. The school president again rejected him on a technicality.

    Kennard’s Arrests and Prosecution

    After this attempt to get admitted to Mississippi Southern College, as Kennard was leaving a meeting at the school, he was arrested.  The alleged charges were speeding and possessing alcohol, even though he did not drink.

    Kennard did not give up.  He wrote letters to a newspaper, stating that he would go to federal court if necessary to get in the school. Then, in September 1960 he was framed for a chicken-feed theft and sent to prison.  At the prison, he endured horrible treatment and had to work in the fields picking cotton.

    Cancer Diagnosis and Death

    When Kennard was diagnosed with cancer, state officials first refused to release him from prison. But pressure from civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. led state officials to fear having a martyr die in their prison system.

    So in February 1963, officials released the very sick Kennard.  He died died several months later on July 4, 1963.

    Kennard’s Innocence

    Decades later, a reporter would get the “witness” to the chicken-feed theft to recant the story.  The “witness” explained that the charges had to do with Kennard’s attempts to go to school.

    Newly discovered documents support Kennard’s innocence too.  And in 2006 the Circuit Court of Forrest County, Mississippi exonerated Kennard. Thus, it became clear what everyone knew at the time: Kennard had committed no crime. He was just a man who wanted to go to school.

    “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”

    The tragic story of Clyde Kennard reminds me of one of the great African-American spirituals, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” Like many spirituals, the song connects the struggles of American slaves to the plight of the Jewish people in ancient Egypt.  “Jacob’s Ladder” uses the Biblical image of the ladder climbing to heaven that Jacob dreamed about.

    One of my favorite versions of the song is by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the wonderful a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973 before retiring from the group in 2004. You may recognize this version of “Jacob’s Ladder” from Ken Burns’s series The Civil War.

    Clyde Kennard knew it is a long ladder that he helped climb. In response to the song’s question, “Children do you want your freedom?,” Kennard responded with a resounding “yes.” And for that and for his sacrifice, we should remember him.

    In one of the final newspaper letters Kennard wrote before he was sentenced to prison, he wrote, ““If there is one quality of Americans which would set them apart from almost any other peoples, it is the history of their struggle for liberty and justice under the law.”

    Every rung goes higher, higher;
    Every rung goes higher, higher;
    Every rung goes higher, higher;
    Soldiers of the cross.

    Photo via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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