The modern fight for civil rights in America began in the mid-twentieth century, with the rise of civil disobedience—the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, and the sit-ins throughout the South—and eventually earned concessions from the federal government. (“Concessions,” meaning “legally enshrined protections for minorities.”) President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law perhaps the most important bill from that period, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with the country still reeling from President Kennedy’s assassination.
Decades later, in 2012, the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan told Johnson’s story in his play All The Way and earned a Tony for the effort. The screen adaptation—also by Schenkkan—premieres Saturday on HBO, operating in the same vein as recent cable television political retrospectives like Confirmation and The People vs. OJ Simpson. Like the play, the film offers a close look at LBJ’s political legacy, from Kennedy’s assassination and the fight for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Johnson’s second-term election. The film feels necessary in this political moment, particularly in terms of depicting the historical relationship between movements and the state. With Black Lives Matter firmly established as the continuation of the 1960s civil rights movement and an election on the horizon, Schenkkan’s timing couldn’t be better.
All The Way screened recently at Lincoln Center, with the cast, director, writer, and a number of HBO executives present. It had the feel of a mock political rally, with red, white, and blue balloons strewn across the venue; in the lounge, there was a cocktail reception, and political stickers and buttons printed with the movie’s branding were omnipresent. The theme was a relief—because a make-believe election is far preferable to the real thing, at least this year.
All The Way begins with Johnson’s baptism by blood: The back seat of the presidential limousine where Kennedy was assassinated flashes on screen, while Cranston’s voice over, pitch-perfect in its languid, baritone Texan drawl, recalls a dream he has of his mother’s home being raided by a Comanche war party. “It’s only a matter of time before they haul me up into the light where their knives gleam,” he says. You have to understand Johnson’s political calculus in the context of the Texan settlers he’s descended from: It comes from fear, mixed with equal measures of ambition and entitlement. That makes sense when you consider that Johnson is the man who engineered America’s liberal democracy, as we know it, at the height of racist obstructionism. Like his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Johnson reconfigured the modern political landscape: Under his tenure, the South parted ways with the Democratic party, and a new generation of public institutions was ushered in under Johnson’s Great Society program.
Writer Robert Schenkkan—who’s authored two plays on Johnson, in addition to this latest film—adapted the material in part because he believes the high-stakes political melodrama is resonant today. Indeed, the lines of power so dutifully mapped throughout the film are a reminder that there is historical precedent for today’s seemingly incoherent political spectacle; hindsight brings things into focus. (Trump certainly recalls Goldwater.) “We live in the world Lyndon Johnson created,” Schenkkan said. “I think in some ways 1964—this movie—is an origin story for 2016. All of the issues that we fight about covertly and overtly have their genesis in that time.”
The film is largely driven by Cranston’s forceful performance as Johnson, whom he’s played on Broadway. (Cranston’s onstage turn as Schenkkan’s LBJ won him a Tony for Best Actor in 2014.) Jay Roach, All The Way’s director, was so enamored with Cranston’s performance that he signed up to direct two films with Cranston as lead—All The Way and Trumbo, both of which examine disquieting moments in American politics. “I had seen the play just to see what he was capable of,” Roach said. “We hadn’t even started on Trumbo and I already committed to two films with him.”
For his part, Cranston the actor is completely subsumed by President Johnson. Heavy makeup and prosthetics complete his transformation into the thirty-sixth president. “As they start to put on the ears, cheeks, chin, it all starts to come out,” he said. “The more I see the character, the more it helps me to embody him and slip into those shoes again. Pretty soon you can get an accent going.” Cranston slips into a Texan drawl: “How’re you darlin’?” he asks me, tipping an imaginary hat. He and Roach spent months on LBJ’s Texas ranch preparing for the role; Cranston is a method actor. “The most challenging part was completely embracing the role and not doing an impersonation,” he said. “To get the sensibilities of the man that LBJ was and present him as honestly as I could.” And who is the man portrayed in the film? A Texan, like the men telling his story, and a looming, imposing figure at six-foot-four. Cranston’s LBJ is by turns hilarious and enraged. He’s sarcastic, folksy, and good with dogs when the cameras are on him; behind closed doors, he screams threats into his phone.
There are many moments when President Johnson is deliberately cruel, such as when he turns press away from Fannie Lou Hamer’s famous speech at the 1964 Democratic convention—where Hamer testified about her brutalization at the hands of Mississippi police officers for attempting to register to vote. (Watch for an electric performance from Aisha Hinds.) Or when he humiliates and belittles his wife, Lady Bird Johnson. Melissa Leo plays her stirringly, though she’s not given enough screen time. There is a particularly cruel story arc when a top aide, Walter Jenkins, is compromised politically. Johnson disposes of him, though he’d previously referred to Jenkins as a surrogate son. It’s a microcosm for his strategy towards the South: Eventually Johnson disposes of the entire Dixiecrat contingent in Congress.
The film builds to that confrontation, and it is thrilling to watch Cranston, as Johnson, shed the racists in his political coalition. It’s clear that this comes at great personal cost to him—Johnson’s relationship with longtime political mentor and Dixiecrat Richard Russell Jr. is irreparably damaged—but the viewer isn’t particularly inspired to care. Progress is always more violent for those with less privilege.
Martin Luther King Jr., played by Anthony Mackie, opposes Johnson, even though the two men have a lot in common. Like Johnson, King is powerful, ambitious, and sometimes unkind to the women around him. (Hilary Ward is wonderful as Coretta King, but has too few speaking lines.) King is also manipulative in his public and private lives. Mackie, who stars in Captain America: Civil War, is a magnetic newcomer. “When I read the script, it was the first time I’d seen Dr. King portrayed as a man,” he said. “My dad always said that Dr. King was a leader of men. And the more I read about him, the more I learned that he was a radical.” Mackie’s portrayal of King is equally steely and assured.
All The Way employs nostalgia to find the truth behind huge political events, which puts it in direct conversation with Selma and other films about our recent political past. It is a great deal of responsibility. While more of President Johnson’s legacy and personal history is made legible on screen than I’ve ever seen before, the story leaves something to be desired. The way the film relates to the characters relegated to its periphery is disappointing—perhaps because even with the benefit of hindsight, the history itself (and the people who made it) come up lacking. The plot is familiar, and though Cranston carries the film, the most compelling subplots are cut short. The political intrigue of the ’60s doesn’t feel new.
At one of emotional low points of All The Way, Johnson, recumbent in bed, recalls his father, Samuel E. Johnson Jr., musing that failure may have been what killed him. You can hear the fear and paranoia gripping his voice—he sounds like a child afraid of the dark as he begins to consider his own legacy. Johnson had the same insecurities we all do; but whatever happened, he made sure it happened on his terms. All The Way never lets you forget that legacies, like most things, are mediated by power.