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What “All the Way” Reminds Us Is How Complicated LBJ Was

In “All the Way,” a 2016 HBO Films production based on the 2014 play of the same name, history and popular culture can offer a way to watch the film for more than just the performance of Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson. The film covers the tumultuous year from the moments after the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy when Johnson first became president to the November 1964 Johnson election when he was elected in his own right. Cranston fully inhabited the role of the irascible president on stage, managing to capture the enormous physicality of Johnson as well as the tortured psyche. He won a Tony for a Broadway run that was overshadowed by the end of his masterful turn as Walter White in “Breaking Bad” on television. The HBO role comes two years later, and will surely earn Cranston another Emmy nod, and probably another win. With close-ups and makeup that belong to the medium of television rather than theater, a key addition to Cranston’s performance is the eyes. Indeed, Cranston may define Johnson’s look and personality in popular culture the way that Hal Holbrook defined Mark Twain for two generations. But as a historian, what interested me the most was how this film fits into the contested terrain of popular culture, history, and current events.

The film is clearly relevant to our political fractious present, whether about political civil wars or public accommodations. In HBO promotional material, the creator of the play and the film Robert Schenkkan explained that he was surprised by how the 1960s source material resonated with the present, and how “contemporary it revealed itself to be. The battles that were being fought in 1964, we still fight today.” Schenkkan should not have been surprised. Every good historical film is, by definition, a debate about the past in the context of the present.

Most films that purport to be about American history are not very good history, and they really just use history as a familiar backdrop for a personal drama, a way of adding depth and poetry to what is otherwise a prosaic story. War—pick almost any, except perhaps the War of 1812—is always useful, as are time periods that involve lush costumes. History becomes a cinematic tool, like music or sets or lighting. “The Patriot” is an example of this, as the complexity of the Revolutionary War is reduced to another physical test in Mel Gibson’s career-long obsession with suffering, slaughter, and redemption. So is “Gone With the Wind,” where the pain of slavery is completely overshadowed by the horror of Scarlett O’Hara picking food with her own bare hands when perfectly good unemployed freedmen are available. The few history films that achieve notable success in telling a story about American history often reverse the process, using a personal drama to focus attention on the larger historical story. “Glory” is perhaps the finest example of this. So are “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Lincoln,” and “Selma.”

For “All the Way,” the personal drama is the historical story. Lyndon Johnson has been one of the great enigmas in recent American history. For millions of Americans, what they remember about Lyndon Johnson is poorly filtered through the lens of the tumultuous mid- to late- 1960s. His Texas drawl and rough mannerisms were in stark contrast to Kennedy’s cosmopolitan charm. His mumbled televised reassurances about Vietnam were eventually answered by chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, LBJ has got to go” that spread across the nation. Even his moments of triumph—the passage of his signature Great Society programs like Medicare and Medicaid, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act—came with the backdrop of terrible acts of violence in the South and chaos in the once dominant Democratic Party coalition. Understanding Lyndon Johnson requires removing him from the mosaic of his times, and looking carefully at the piece of chipped glass that is Lyndon Johnson: depending on how one looks, he could be bright or dark, strong or fragile, transparent or opaque.

Other presidents have proven to be difficult to pinpoint. Ronald Reagan so stymied his authorized biographer Edmund Morris that his work of history turned into fiction. Johnson’s greatest biographer, Robert Caro, has spent more years researching and writing about Johnson’s political career than the number of years Johnson had a political career. His biographies are a staggering accomplishment, a blend of journalism and history that provides an almost cinematic level of detail and pathos. It is not a surprise to learn that the play and film “All the Way” relied heavily on Caro’s source material. Here was a master of politics whose mixture of Machiavelli, Madison, and myopia made him the flawed architect of postwar American life. Johnson could sit astride a toilet and from there wield his power as adroitly as anyone who actually sat on a throne. This film is effectively Caro’s LBJ come all the way to life in our popular culture.

The film and the play will not launch a reevaluation of Johnson’s muddled presence in the national mosaic. Although Cranston’s performance is brilliant, the project as a whole will not redefine the popular culture’s larger vision of history. Miranda’s “Hamilton” is a work of artistic genius that elevates the personal drama of Hamilton’s career and life to such an extent that it is redefining the very meaning of early America. Not since “The Birth of a Nation” (which no less an authority than former historian and active President Woodrow Wilson called it “writing history with lighting”) has a work of art so affected American popular notions of history. But perhaps it is better, in terms of understanding, to avoid the writing of history with lightning or music. First, such works of genius do not come along very often. Second, they can bulldoze rather than elucidate (Reconstruction effectively disappeared in D.W. Griffith’s lighting strike; Miranda has shaken the pantheon of Founding Fathers, but replacing Jefferson with Hamilton presents its own historical problems). “All the Way” has effectively entered the historical conversation, but it is not historic in its own right.

“All the Way” is also clearly enmeshed in recent political television and films. The casting of Bradley Whitford as Hubert Humphrey is a reference to Whitford’s central role in “The West Wing,” and a sly rebuke of that show’s simplistic depiction of the noble idealism of liberal politics versus the craven compromises of conservatism. Whitford’s Humphrey is the most liberal major politician in mid-1960s America, but he is just another hammer in Johnson’s political tool chest, and one that Johnson uses to hammer down liberal nails that are sticking out too much rather than as a sword to slay conservative Southern Democrats. The show also makes a clear nod to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (and this might be a self-referential nod since Spielberg was the executive producer of “All the Way”), as both films treat crucial moments in remaking American law as a series of back room negotiations and horse trading rather than great men making history through Olympian acts or Capraesque invocations. Presidents Johnson and Lincoln are shown as men who literally count votes rather than focus on idealism. Finally, the film almost has to give Martin Luther King a greater role considering the recent impact of Ana DuVernay’s “Selma.” Although the role of Dr. King is depicted in HBO’s promotional materials as the counterpart to Johnson, King is more of a sparring partner than a true opponent. Yet the casting of rising star Anthony Mackie was an inspired choice. As with Cranston, Mackie’s greatest acting tools are his eyes (something that the Marvel universe seems to have forgetten). In “8 Mile” and “The Hurt Locker,” Mackie’s eyes offer depth and complexity to what might otherwise have been forgettable roles. Mackie does not have the voice or physicality of the “Selma” star David Oyelowo, but he does have a gaze that speaks volumes.

“All the Way” might become the final word on establishing Lyndon Johnson’s place in the popular firmament, but it is only the starting point for the drama of the 1960s. King is finally becoming a living, breathing historical figure rather than a two-dimensional symbol of rectitude, a national holiday come to life. But the story of the Civil Rights Movement is poorly understood, relegated to the margins for those who do not recognize that it was one of the central battles in all American history. We remember that names of Union and Confederate generals: we need to learn and understand those who fought in the second civil war.

Lyndon Johnson is properly situated as the center of gravity for the events of his days, but he was hardly the only actor on the stage of history. Almost every scene in the film features Cranston, but a few that were added to provide human agency are the most intriguing: the traffic stop that will lead to the execution of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi is one example, but so is a quiet scene between Lady Bird Johnson and Johnson’s most trusted aide Walter Jenkins. Scenes of Democratic Party defenders of Jim Crow debating strategy in a plush club are contrasted with scenes of Civil Rights leaders doing the same while sitting on folding chairs in basements. The names and titles of many of these individuals literally appear on the screen, and one almost wants to reach out and touch the hyperlinks to learn more. But this is the unidirectional message of television, and it is a unidirectional message that the viewer only needs to understand these people as historical figures whose seemingly irreconcilable positions had to be balanced by Lyndon Johnson. But in the right setting, these scenes can be used as a starting point to unravel the complexity of the Civil Rights revolution as well as the counterrevolution that may have had just as many passionate defenders.

Perhaps most poignant to a historian are the many characters in the film who have no names and no lines. They are not just there as background characters (one’s mind still reels to consider what it was like to be an African American extra during the filming of “The Birth of a Nation”). They are the living, breathing human beings about whom the drama of the film will most affect. The film is filled with porters, waiters, bartenders, servants, and secretaries, characters who do not get their names or titles written on the screen. Director Jay Roach deserves considerable credit for how he handled these scenes. Horrific bile from the mouths of Congressmen about African American animals is juxtaposed by the same Congressional shoes being shined by African Americans who dare not show any emotion, or speak without being spoken to first, or even make unwanted eye contact. The 1964 Civil Rights Act signing ceremony is a moment of genuine fellowship between President Johnson and Reverend King, but the scene was preceded by ceremonial pens and the law’s actual paper being laid out with exquisite care by African American characters. The only way they communicate to the audience is their careful body language and hopeful eyes. This is not history written with lightning, but with the small gestures that are real life.

For those who practice the timeless art of nostalgia—one of the great bromides of American politics—“All the Way” is a reminder that the past was not always a better world, and that the past may not exactly repeat but it can certainly rhyme with the present. 2016 is clearly the year of American civil war, something that we have not experienced since 1968. It has been brewing for some time now, in our culture and our politics, but it is now in evidence everywhere. African American quarterbacks are measured against the standards of professional football, and found wanting in their conduct (if not their ability). Marvel superheroes do not know where to stand or how to fight (and here is Anthony Mackie again, playing a deeply conflicted but idealistic character). The Republican primary campaign is over, and the threats of bloodshed (political and literal) in the Cleveland Republican National Convention might be put on hold, but the party faces a deeply uncertain future whether their candidate wins or not. On the Democratic side of politics, Bernie Sanders seems to be preparing for a repeat of the chaotic and violent 1968 Democratic National Convention, a specter that President Obama had seemingly laid to rest with his 2008 victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park. Philadelphia this summer will be as tense as it was during the debates over the Constitution (or during a Flyers game).

Johnson is at once all of our major candidates at once. Like Hillary Clinton, he is hardest-working person in the room and the master of detail. Like Donald Trump, he is larger than life, and believes that he can always get the deal he needs. And like Bernie Sanders, he is incredibly liberal and an acolyte of the power of government to do good. Lyndon Johnson reminds us that our debates, our passions, our politics, our government, and even our presidents are smaller than they once were.