There are few surprises in Rob Reiner’s “LBJ.” Still, it’s a well-directed biopic of a controversial president who led the country during turbulent times.
Woody Harrelson is enjoyable as Lyndon Baines Johnson, who assumed the presidency upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan, “Sicario”) in 1963.
Reiner wisely begins the movie a few years before the slaying, so that we can learn about the contentious relationship between Johnson and the Kennedy brothers — Robert (Michael Stahl-David, “Cloverfield”) in particular. The civil rights movement is heating up, and so is the war in Vietnam.
Johnson wants to run for president, but he knows that his chances are slim against the handsome, charismatic JFK.
Johnson’s often coarse mannerisms aren’t appreciated by everyone he encounters. But his supportive wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh, bearing a resemblance to the late first lady with the help of a prosthetic nose) encourages him with her practical advice and reassurance about his worth.
Harrelson sometimes resembles his real-life character, and when it works, it’s quite effective. At other times, the makeup can become distracting. Harrelson does indeed carry himself like LBJ. He’s particularly good at channeling the president when he bellows or chastises others — he has the force and the no-nonsense gruffness for which Johnson was well-known.
Many, if not most, of the members of the audience in which I saw the show obviously remembered Johnson, and chuckled at what have become legendary quirks of the man who sometimes held meetings from the bathroom — with the door open — and at other times argued passionately about civil rights.
One especially compelling scene depicts Johnson sharing a story about an African-American member of his household staff and the problems she encountered while traveling. It’s a touching spin on a real story Johnson often told to emphasize inequality in the United States.
Senator Richard Russell is beautifully portrayed by Richard Jenkins, who gives humanity to the politician despite his opposition to the civil rights movement. The dialogue between LBJ and Russell is realistic and interesting. Jenkins is such a terrific actor that he is able to lend a human side to Russell.
What the movie lacks is the depth of biopics such as Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” It would have been nice to see more character-revealing moments from Johnson to develop him as a more sympathetic character.
Still, it’s an entertaining movie with solid performances that will bring back memories to some viewers and have others wondering just how much liberty was taken with the facts. “LBJ” won’t go all the way to the Oscars, but it probably will keep you engaged.