Though based on Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning 2012 play, it’s hard not to read “All the Way” as a response to 2014’s “Selma,” a stirring account of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement’s 1965 activism in support of the Voting Rights Act that nevertheless drew the ire of some LBJ devotees for its portrayal of the president as an obstacle to civil rights rather than a willing participant. In fact, the scenes with LBJ were the weakest part of “Selma,” awkwardly staged and dramatically inert, with Tom Wilkinson seeming a bit lost in the role. (The rest of the movie, I want to make clear, was magnificent, however.)
“All the Way,” which documents the first year of LBJ’s presidency, from JFK’s assassination in November 1963 to his reelection in November 1964, then offers a double corrective, reclaiming LBJ’s legacy as a tenacious champion of civil rights and renewing his character as a cussin’, fussin’, philanderin’, tough-ass Texas sumbitch. He is introduced as the LBJ of pop-historical myth, the three-TV-watching, amphibicar-driving, dog-ear-pulling, redneck-in-chief. The kind of guy who holds meetings on the toilet as a power move and grouses that his new suit makes him look like a “dago undertaker.” With the help of some fake eyebrows and prosthetic ears (the latter of which take on a slight uncanny valley effect if you focus on them too long), Bryan Cranston disappears into the role to a surprising degree, practically inflating himself to match LBJ’s outsized personality, while, in the end, retaining a sense of the enigma of LBJ, a man born dirt-poor, who conquered the senate before he was thrust into the presidency, accomplishing so much—civil rights, voting rights, Great Society—and then walking away from it all.
LBJ’s big personality helps cut through what could otherwise be a staid historical drama. The film centers around two major events—the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Democratic National Convention. Schenkkan’s script deftly examines how LBJ juggled a complicated set of constituencies, including the civil rights movement, liberal Democrats, and Southern Dixiecrats, to push through civil rights. The movement is represented by MLK (Anthony Mackie) who keeps the pressure on LBJ while dealing with his own group’s internecine strategic disputes. Humbert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) stands in for the liberal wing of the Democratic party, who views LBJ as too accommodating toward the racist southern Dixiecrats. This latter group is exemplified by Georgia senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella), LBJ’s friend and senatorial mentor who openly bemoans the passing of the segregationist era. This extremely precarious coalition inevitably explodes at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, in which Johnson agreed to seat two delegates from the insurgent civil rights-affiliated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which instigated a walkout from several southern states’ delegates.
With “Lincoln,” “Selma,” and now “All the Way,” we seem to be living through something of a Golden Age of civics class movies. “All the Way” finds a nice balance between the on-the-ground activist-centered focus of “Selma” and the top-down congress-and-cabinet view of “Lincoln.” “All the Way” recognizes that both are essential for social change. If “All the Way” lacks the rousing vitality of “Selma” or the idiosyncratic distinctiveness of “Lincoln” (which melded the liberal fascination with process to a quasi-religious cornball mythology), it nevertheless holds its own as an entertaining, unflashy history lesson, a made-for-TV movie in the classic mold. Director Jay Roach just gets out of the way of Schenkkan’s script and lets his actors (and their makeup) do the work. The result is a film that, in its unpretentious way, holds a fair bit of wisdom about the process of social change and the nature of political parties. It subtly suggests that grand social change inevitably forces mass political realignments. In the context of the current election, that may prove to be prescient.