All The Way: Capturing LBJ’s legacy

​High level cinema isn’t being produced by only major Hollywood studios anymore.

Internet based companies like Amazon and Netflix have both made major strides in creating and developing their own award-worthy films. 

Now HBO has re-entered the cinematic landscape as a producer of original film content with the transcendent docudrama “All The Way,” featuring a likely Emmy-winning effort from Bryan Cranston as legendary president and Texas Hill Country native Lyndon B. Johnson.

Based on the Tony Award winning play of the same name by Robert Schenkkan, “All The Way” opens immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas and follows Johnson’s self-proclaimed “accidental presidency” over the course of the next two years. 

Though LBJ was known for a number of landmark legislative achievements, “All The Way” limits the scope to Johnson’s determination to hold the Democratic Party together and get re-elected while passing a then-controversial civil rights bill. 

“All The Way” touches on Johnson’s local connection to the Texas Hill Country throughout the film. Johnson is frequently beset with nightmares of his great-grandmother having to hide from Comanche raiding parties and the film regularly shows Johnson’s life outside Washington D.C. 

In one scene, LBJ scares future running mate Hubert Humphries by driving his amphibicar off-road and into the Pedernales River near Johnson City, while in another, Johnson passionately argues for passage of the civil rights bill to reporters gathered around at the Texas White House in Stonewall.

For a film so focused on Washington politics and civil liberties in Mississippi, the film more than accurately portrays Johnson’s affinity for the Texas Hill Country and how it influences every decision that he makes.

Cranston is almost completely unrecognizable as Johnson, melting into the role both as an actor and under the phenomenally transformative makeup that makes it hard for viewers to recognize the actor within.

The four-time Emmy winner is equally adept infusing Johnson with a lighthearted, folksy charisma as he is at navigating the film’s most complex dramatic monologues. Many actors have brought United States presidents to life on screen, but none have felt as authentic and natural as Cranston, who doesn’t just play LBJ. For a little over two hours, he is LBJ.

Anthony Mackie – best known for playing the superhero Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – is less transformative than Cranston as civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

While it’s unclear whether King was meant to play a secondary role to LBJ in the film, Cranston’s otherworldly performance dominates the screen so much that it is impossible not to feature Johnson more prominently in “All The Way” as a result. This takes nothing away from a solid effort from Mackie, who makes the iconic King a compelling counterbalance to Johnson. 

Oscar-winner Melissa Leo has an understated, elegant turn in limited screen time as the revered Lady Bird Johnson. While “All The Way” does not focus much on the marriage between LBJ and Lady Bird, Leo is able to easily convey an unassuming strong-hearted love for Johnson in convincing fashion. A separate film with Cranston and Leo centered around the couple would make for a wonderful mini-series as both actors provide so much depth to the Johnsons’ relationship in a short amount of time.

Tony Award winner Frank Langella’s turn as ranking Democratic senator Richard Russell, Jr. convincingly shows the other side of the coin politically from LBJ, rounding out how LBJ’s civil reforms reshaped American politics as we know it today.

Director Jay Roach gives “All The Way” a crisp, clean feel cinematically, while providing ample opportunity for both Cranston’s individual performance and a superior script from Schenkkan to shine. 

Schenkkan adapts his own play for the screen and masterfully balances the many characters influencing LBJ from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to civil rights activists working in Mississippi to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara handling U.S. troops in Vietnam. 

Thanks to Schenkkan’s superior storytelling, “All The Way” makes the seemingly mundane process of gathering votes for the civil rights bill intriguing, with LBJ swapping presidential cufflinks for support and telling King that lobbying Congress is a lot like hitting on women. 

While just a small segment of Johnson’s historic presidency that could have spanned a dozen films, “All The Way” feels like the best possible way to encapsulate LBJ as a man and as a legislator. Since the movie skipped theaters and premiered on HBO, Cranston will miss out on an otherwise automatic best actor nomination and will have to likely settle for a fifth Emmy.

“All The Way” is a must-see political docudrama now showing daily on HBO channels and available on demand from HBO Go.

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