Friday, June 03, 2016

Way Out

A couple years back, actor Bryan Cranston won wide acclaim (and a Tony Award) for playing President Lyndon Johnson in the play All the Way. HBO quickly snatched up the rights to adapt the play to film, and that version recently debuted on the network. After all the praise (and given my appreciation for Cranston), I was eager to check out the results... and ultimately disappointed.

All the Way chronicles LBJ's efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the subsequent scrambling he had to do to secure his re-election as president. You'd sense that the movie was based on a play even if you hadn't been told beforehand, as there's a very clear break halfway through between the two story elements -- what would have been the intermission when the same story played at the theater. But what I really found myself thinking of as I watched All the Way was another movie, Lincoln. History is what it is, of course; the facts are what they are. But both films chronicle the efforts of a president to pass meaningful civil rights legislation over the intransigence of a racist Southern coalition. And for my money, Lincoln is the far superior take on that story.

I think my main problem with All the Way is that it can't quite tell whose story it wants to be. LBJ does take center stage, of course, but the film also spends an awful lot of time on other characters. A lot of focus is given to Martin Luther King Jr, which makes sense in the context of a movie about civil rights, but feels at times a stretch when things turn to Johnson's election campaign. There's a lot of material about J. Edgar Hoover's paranoid crusade against King, which makes sense in the context of a movie about King (as in Selma), but doesn't always seem to serve the narrative here. There are recurring threads about Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, but while they feel like they might have been put there to help form a "warts and all" portrait of LBJ, they instead often frustrate with their hints of other interesting tales that aren't this tale.

The result is an unfortunate jumble about what really should come across as a vital time. The movie feels oddly dry, and ponderous in its slow pacing. I thought I'd been watching for two hours when I came to the shift in the story, only to find I was barely halfway through. The cast is solid, but can't really lift the material up. Bryan Cranston is good, though his makeup is more transformative than his performance. Bradley Whitford might be engaging as Humphrey, if the political context didn't instead make you feel like watching him in an episode of The West Wing. Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo, Stephen Root, Frank Langella, Ray Wise... I mean, the cast is stacked. It's just that the results aren't that engaging.

I'd call All the Way an unfortunate D+. Perhaps something core was lost in the translation from stage to screen. But in any case, I can't recommend it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Damn! I was really looking forward to this.