Written by Chris Diggins
All the Way Plot Summary
After John F. Kennedy’s assassination makes him president, Lyndon B. Johnson (Bryan Cranston) has to balance the competing interests of his many allies and enemies while he seeks to pass a civil rights bill and secure his re-election.
Lyndon B. Johnson might be one of the most fascinating figures in American history. He was an infamous bully who constantly antagonized everyone around him, bragged about his affairs and the size of his penis, and cheated and lied his way through most of his career. And yet he was also a person who cared deeply about the plight of the poor and oppressed, someone who, having achieved the power of the presidency, used it to pass civil rights legislation and enact the largest scale effort to eliminate poverty in our history. So it’s not that surprising that we’ve gotten a TV movie about him now, or that Bryan Cranston was tapped to play him: in our current era of complex anti-heroes, LBJ fits right in, and Cranston’s Walter White is this era’s standard-bearer. But does it live up to the high standards its lead has set?
All the Way, an adaptation of the play of the same name, takes place immediately after JFK’s assassination and tracks LBJ’s first year in office. It mainly concerns itself with Johnson’s wrangling to pass a civil rights bill, as he constantly butts heads with erstwhile allies like liberal Senator Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford), leader of the Southern Democrats Senator Dick Russel (Frank Langella), and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (Anthony Mackie). The movie details his wheeling and dealing, his bullying and cajoling, and all the dirty tricks he pulled to finally get his bill passed. And once he does, things shift to his efforts to keep the fracturing coalition of northern liberals and southern segregationists that he has now irreparably damaged from falling apart before he can be re-elected.
At its core, All the Way is a character study, partially of everyone involved but most of all of LBJ himself. The opening monologue, where Johnson recounts a recurring nightmare where a Comanche raiding party slowly tracks him down, paints a picture of a man hunted, who constantly fears the knives he knows are being sharpened behind his back. The rest of the movie bears this out, as none of Johnson’s accomplishments are enough to make him feel secure or satisfied. He rages and despairs at every setback, demands that everyone be obedient and everything be perfect. Facing Barry Goldwater, one of the most unpopular Republican presidential nominees ever, he remains convinced that Goldwater is unleashing a cavalcade of dirty tricks to ruin him and that he’ll lose. Even in the end, after he’s signed his bill into law and won the largest popular vote victory since the country’s early years, the twin specters of Vietnam and the South’s seemingly permanent defection to the Republican Party make these victories taste like ash in his mouth. It’s a compelling portrait, one that skillfully draws on what we know of the real Johnson’s psyche.
Unfortunately, the movie is not always so successful at conveying these notions. At the end of the day, it’s still an HBO TV movie, and that means sweeping drama, dramatic close-ups, grand speeches while the music swells. In some cases, this works quite well: there are plenty of speeches drawn directly from Johnson’s and King’s own lives that certainly deserve this kind of treatment. However, the whole movie is painted with the brush of epic drama, which not only makes the movie feel monotonous in tone, but also hurts scenes that could have benefited from a more intimate portrayal. And the movie cannot help but feel a little too heavy-handed at points. The first half has a habit of having African American servants pop up whenever white politicians discuss civil rights, which might have been clever once but starts to feel a bit silly around the fourth time it happens. All this adds up to a movie that often undermines its own worthy material by treating it too reverently.
Still, if there’s any actor who can elevate so-so material, it’s Bryan Cranston. From the very first scene he’s magnetic as LBJ, portraying the power, charm, and terror of the man in equal measures. Watching Johnson work everyone over, alternately flattering and abusing them and constantly telling crude, meandering stories is one of the movie’s chief pleasures. Any scene with him and Hubert Humphrey is often particularly enjoyable, since Johnson clearly believes the carrot of the vice presidency lets him beat Humphrey with the stick of his abuse as often as he wants. And while the script alone may not entirely sell the idea of LBJ’s unique combination of cruelty and hunger for power with a genuine desire to do good for those who need it most, Cranston, extracting every bit of pathos he can from every morsel he’s given, more than makes up the difference. All the Way may never make it into the annals of great art, but like last year’s Trumbo, Cranston’s performance alone makes it worth giving a shot.
As an in-depth look at one of our most consequential presidents, All the Way is fascinating. As a showcase of Bryan Cranston’s talents, it’s electric. But as a movie, as a piece of entertainment you sit down to watch, it fails to rise above the merely good. Bogged down in the tone and texture of an HBO movie and an imperfect transition from stage to screen, it can’t quite translate its intriguing subject matter into great art. There is plenty of entertainment to be had, and there are certainly worse ways to spend two hours, but in the end I can’t help but feel like there’s a better movie waiting to be made about the Johnson presidency.
Rating: 7 out of 10