It is odd that the potential weakness of Rob Reiner's film LBJ -- the casting of Woody Harrelson to play the former president -- turns out to be the real strength of what amounts to a rather slight but entertaining film about Lyndon B. Johnson's tragic arrival in the Oval Office.
It has been 24 years since the bar on TV's Cheers closed its doors, and Harrelson has gone on to do many things beyond playing the goofy, lovable Woody Boyd. In particular, his work on True Detective opposite Matthew McConaughey, his role as a high school teacher in The Edge of Seventeen and his officer bearing bad news in The Messenger stand out as exemplary work.
But Woody ... as LBJ?
It works because Joey Hartstone's excellent script gives Harrelson the opportunity to dominate scenes just as LBJ worked a room of political allies or rivals or both. Bryan Cranston's LBJ from HBO's All the Way last year is a towering and difficult performance to follow, but Harrelson fails only when he smiles. In those infrequent moments, he's still just bartender Woody. But otherwise, he portrays LBJ's frustration and dogged determination well throughout the film.
The focus of Reiner's undersize piece about a larger-than-life president (it runs less than 100 minutes) is LBJ attaining the office after the JFK assassination and his decision to push through Kennedy's civil rights legislation at considerable political cost.
There are some fine early moments with Ralph Yarborough, the liberal Texas senator who had been LBJ's rival for years. Played by Bill Pullman, Yarborough tells LBJ that his conscience is "the only way I ever vote," to which LBJ responds, "Spoken like a true one-term senator."
The film, in using flashbacks to the 1960 presidential campaign, reminds us how vastly different the political process was at that time. In April of that year, aides are still trying to get a reluctant LBJ to announce his candidacy. Imagine such a scenario today: a serious candidate just two or three months shy of the convention, having not announced his or her intentions.
Only 16 states had primaries in 1950. Johnson ran in none and still finished second to Kennedy in the delegate count that summer. Kennedy made the controversial decision at the Democratic National Convention to select LBJ as his running mate, which earned the wrath of Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David). The best scenes in the film are between Harrelson and Stahl-David, who is given much more to work with here than he had in playing a DEA agent in Narcos.
After accepting the position and winning the election, LBJ realizes how his career has been marginalized by the Kennedys. From Senate majority leader to vice president is not necessarily a step up the ladder of relevance.
Of course, all that unravels in Dallas, and while there's been no shortage of films dramatizing Nov. 22, 1963, in recent years, the fact that the focus here is the second limousine and LBJ's reaction to everything happening around him at Parkland Hospital separates this from the crowd and makes it compelling.
This being a Reiner film, the movie tells the story of LBJ's liberal high point, his dedication to succeed at passing civil rights legislation that he formerly opposed on behalf of both the assassinated president and a recognition of where the wrong side of history might be. Vietnam gets less than 10 seconds of airtime.
If you want the president who lied to the country as he escalated the war and eventually declined to seek re-election in 1968 -- imagine even an unpopular president doing such a thing in the past 40 years -- you'll have to dive into Ken Burns' Vietnam War, well worth the 18-hour journey.
This, in contrast, is a thrill ride at the fair, one that Harrelson pilots far more adequately than you might expect.
Rated R (for language). Run time: 98 minutes. In wide release.