DATELINE: Sympathy for Lyndon
Two of TV’s biggest personalities in the 1970s have managed to survive as two highly respected professionals today. These are Woody Harrelson who started out as a boy toy on Cheers, and Rob Reiner who was Archie Bunker’s son-in-law punching bag.
They team up as star and director of LBJ, an interesting and sympathetic portrait of a man who has fallen into disfavor among Kennedy fans and conspiracy theorists. It’s all the more interesting when you consider Woody Harrelson’s father was a CIA agent arrested as a person of suspicion in Dallas in 1963.
The ironies of history are not lost on this film in which Johnson is largely despised by Bobby Kennedy, almost with a pathological hatred, and mistrusted as a Judas figure by the Southern senators of which Johnson was often a key leader.
Under heavy (and impressive) makeup, Harrelson is an amazing likeness of LBJ. It’s matched by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird.
The movie jumps between re-enacted assassination scenes in Dallas and times before and after with the Kennedys. John Kennedy seems to laugh at the wit of Johnson, but nothing can save LBJ from Robert Kennedy’s disgust. This may be the most negative portrait of the Attorney General in movies. Bobby is played by Michael Stahl-David as a sourpuss.
LBJ quotes Shakespeare and one smarmy Kennedy aide notes that he is quoting Brutus. A little knowledge is dangerous.
The film dismisses Vietnam in one sentence in one scene, and though Johnson talks to J. Edgar Hoover in a one-sided phone call, there is nothing about the Warren Commission.
LBJ is devastated by the death of JFK and swears to bring forth Kennedy’s desire for a Civil Rights bill, even if it brings him into loggerheads with Sen. Russell of Georgia (Richard Jenkins). He calls his long-time friend a racist to his face.
Johnson’s crude humor and drawl contrasted badly with the debonair charm of JFK—but this film tries to go below the surface, and therein is the movie’s importance.