Starring: Woody Harrelson, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins
Director: Rob Reiner
Running Time: 97 mins
LBJ is an American film about the years between the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as President of the USA and his assassination in 1963, with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson right at the centre of a series of major historical events.
There are the few great historical biopics that will stand the test of time, Schindler’s List, Patton, Lawrence Of Arabia, Downfall etc., and then there is a much larger group of genre films that just don’t match up to that standarad, often feeling more like PBS-produced TV movies than true cinematic greats.
LBJ does unfortunately fall under that category, but it shines as one of the better films that don’t quite break into that top bracket. Despite a rather dry and low-energy atmosphere that’s worsened by underwhelming production quality, it succeeds with good humour, decent performances and a well-chosen historical focus that all come together to make a thoroughly engaging watch, just not one that will be remembered for the ages.
Let’s start on the bright side, with the way in which the film surpasses the excessively dull and talky atmosphere that plagues so many historical biopics. While the true greats do more than just tell the history, LBJ is content to tell the history, albeit in a more dynamic and interesting way than we normally see.
Above all, the film’s humour is a really welcome treat, with Woody Harrelson in particular doing a great job throughout at bringing great personality to the character of Lyndon Johnson, as well as bringing a bit of energy to some of the more heated political debates and clashes with fellow Democrats as his tenure as Vice President under JFK hits a series of obstacles.
It’s not absolutely laugh-out-loud funny, but for a film that occasionally looks to be getting a little dry with overly long and drawn out conversations and negotiations, it really makes a difference in keeping things genuinely engaging.
When it comes to the story, I do feel that this is the sort of film that will satisfy those who already know the general outline of the true history, rather than being a timeless tale for all to marvel at. Having said that, if you do know about the political career of LBJ, then you’ll be surprised to see how heavily it focuses on his tenure as Vice President, rather than his tumultuous term as President.
As a result, the film offers up some really interesting and surprising details and events that you may not know, as well as gives an intriguing insight into the theme of party politics, all the while firmly engrossing you in the wider political context of the time.
That’s where the film proves particularly intriguing, but when it gets a little too bogged down in particulars, it does threaten to stop abruptly, and prove far more boring and frustrating than things should be.
All in all, if LBJ were a film that just wasn’t so fussed about being as deeply detailed as a history documentary, and lent a little bit more attention to the cinematic side of things, that is a dynamic atmosphere and strong energy, as well as more accessible and easily understood dialogue, it would be an absolutely enthralling watch, and one that manages to encapsulate the lives of not one, but two US Presidents (and a whole host of other major political figures), in just an hour and a half, something that would have proved incredibly impressive.
While that’s something that could prove good or bad depending on your interest and historical knowledge, the one objectively poor thing about this film is its production quality. Unlike the exceptional work Jackie – set in the exact same time period – LBJ fails to really engross you in the time of the early 60s, with cheesy make-up design, average costume design and very poor CGI landscapes, making the film appear a little fake throughout, and more often than not taking you out of what should be an enthralling moment of history to watch unfold on screen.
Overall, I did like LBJ, particularly because of its strong humour and unique historical focus, as well as a good turn from Woody Harrelson, however it fails to prove a true great as it features a somewhat underwhelming atmosphere with some excessively detailed and overly drawn out moments, as well as poor production quality that proves very distracting throughout, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.3.