Judy and I watched ALL THE WAY (2016) the other night and it is hands down, one of the best films I've seen so far this year. Produced by HBO films and adapted from the play by Robert Schenkkan, , ALL THE WAY was first broadcast on May 21st of this year. The film covers President Lyndon Johnson's first year in office, beginning with the assassination of President Kennedy in November, 1963, through election day 1964. Bryan Cranston (who reprises his role from the play's 2014 Broadway production) delivers the performance of a lifetime as LBJ. He looks, sounds and moves like Johnson and he fully brings to life this incredible, remarkable man who was, perhaps, the greatest pure politician to ever occupy the Oval Office.
Cranston dominates the film but he gets a lot of great support from a sterling cast. Melissa Leo is terrific as Lady Bird, Bradley Whitford nails Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Anthony Mackie is solid as Dr. Martin Luther King, Stephen Root is good as J. Edgar Hoover and Frank Langella almost steals the show as Senator Richard Russell, Jr.
The narrative focuses on the political battles that LBJ fought during his first year in getting the Civil Rights Act passed. It's a game of cajoling, arm twisting, intimidation, and sheer force of will. Johnson lectures Humphrey while seated on the toilet in one scene. Compromises are made, power is lost by the Dixiecrats and no sooner does the bill become law than Johnson must face Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Most of the action takes place within the White House, the Capitol and other Washington locales, but Schenkkan and director Jay Roach do a great job of opening up the action and depicting scenes in Mississippi and Johnson's Texas ranch. You never feel like you're watching merely a filmed stage play.
ALL THE WAY draws heavily on archival material to correctly reproduce conversations, meetings, photographs, clothing, cars, etc. It's accurate in all details and this attention to accuracy adds greatly to the film. Last year Judy and I read INDOMITABLE WILL: LBJ IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Mark Updegrove (director of the LBJ Library here in Austin). Much of what's in the ALL THE WAY script was in that book.
Part history lesson, part character study of a very complex man, ALL THE WAY is first rate from beginning to end. It's enormously engrossing, gripping, and, at times, funny. It has been nominated for eight Primetime Emmy Awards including Outstanding Television Movie as well as acting nominations for Cranston and Leo. It deserves to win them all in my book.
You may be sick and tired of politics in this contentious election year but if you're at all interested in both American history and well crafted drama, you owe it to yourself to watch ALL THE WAY. Highest recommendation.
Now, a personal note. One of my mother's best friends while growing up in Austin was Liz Carpenter. Carpenter, who begin her career as a journalist, eventually went to work for Lyndon Johnson when he was in Congress and finally wound up as Lady Bird's press secretary durng the White House years. My family took a trip to Washington in the summer of 1964 and Liz arranged for us to have a private tour of the Oval Office and a photo op with President Johnson. That's me front left. Note the short pants legs. I think I was expecting a flood that day.
The irony of this photograph is that both of my parents were rock solid Republicans. They did not like LBJ. My father had a huge Goldwater campaign sign attached to the roof of his car. It looked like a green and yellow shark fin. My mother, to her dying day, believed that Johnson engineered the death of JFK in order to achieve the presidency. But still, my mother and Liz Carpenter remained friends until the end. I got to know Liz over the years and had the honor of interviewing her for a profile story I did for DISCOVER AUSTIN magazine back in the 1990s. Liz attended my mother's funeral service and if I recall correctly, that was the last time I visited with her before her death.