Famous for disastrously thickening U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Lyndon B. Johnson was also a complicated and caring chief executive who deserves to be remembered as a champion of civil rights. Filmmaker Rob Reiner presents that picture of the nation’s 36th president in “LBJ,” a clunky biopic made watchable by its lead performance.
Reiner, whose directorial credits range from early charmers (“The Princess Bride”) to ill-received recent fare (“Being Charlie”), fares so-so with this respectable history lesson and character portrait.
Written by Joey Hartstone, it covers about four years, beginning around 1960, when the younger, charismatic John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) beats LBJ (a prosthetically enhanced Woody Harrelson), the powerful veteran senator and ace negotiator from Texas, for the Democratic presidential nomination. Needing the southern vote to win in November, JFK chooses LBJ as his running mate.
Crude, bullyish and hardly Camelot material, LBJ feels disliked by the Kennedy clan. He especially clashes with JFK’s brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David), who, LBJ surmises, regards him as a future election rival. As vice president, LBJ resents being little more than a figurehead.
But on Nov. 22, 1963, following the events in Dallas, LBJ is sworn into office on Air Force One. He and his wife, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) soon settle into the White House.
As president, LBJ surprises many by deciding to honor JFK’s legacy by pushing for the congressional passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act.
He breaks his ties with the segregationist senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) and allies himself with liberal colleague Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman). LBJ’s speech to Congress, in 1964, earns mass applause.
White House junkies should enjoy this film, which is peppered with references to political notables of the period.
But Harrelson is the real draw. The actor doesn’t get deeply inside the head of the complex man he’s playing. He’s also somewhat cartoonish.
But honoring Reiner’s respectful intentions, Harrelson delivers an earnest portrait of a flawed but decent man, and true to his own spirited, actorly personality, he has welcome fun with his character’s imperfections. He keeps the movie vital.
Unfortunately, he can’t erase the problems of jumpy and frustratingly safe storytelling.
As LBJ makes history in the civil-rights arena, Reiner presents his achievements flatly and connect-the-dots style. The frequent returning to the motorcade in Dallas proves unnecessary and distracting.
Also problematic is the near-zero mention of Vietnam, the dark side of LBJ’s legacy.
The able supporting cast doesn’t have enough to do. Leigh is terrific as the southern, supportive Lady Bird but is stuck in the stock role of the loyal political wife.
Jenkins wisely plays the racist senator as an all too human rotten reality, not a one-note antagonist.
Two and a half stars
Starring Woody Harrelson, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Written by Joey Hartstone
Directed by Rob Reiner
Running time 1 hour, 38 minutes