Sunday, May 22, 2016

Super Delegates Bonus: Lyndon B. Johnson in "All the Way" (2016)

Bryan Cranston
Welcome to Super Delegates Bonus. As a subsidiary of Super Delegates, the sporadic additional column is meant to explore depictions of politicians on film outside of the conventional methods of the column. This ranges from everything such as political candidates in TV movies and miniseries to real life candidates providing feedback on their pop culture representation. While not as frequent or conventional, the goal is to help provide a vaster look at politics on film as it relates to the modern election year. Join in and have some fun. One can only imagine what will be covered here.

All the Way
Release Date: May 21, 2016
Directed By: Jay Roach
Written By: Robert Schenkkan
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Bryan Cranston, Joe Morton
Delegates in Question:
-Lyndon Johnson

In the realm of pop culture, there are few presidents that have consumed our consciousness quite like John F. Kennedy. Beyond his achievements, his assassination alone has fueled decades of conspiracies as well as leading to the film JFK and one of Stephen King's most revered books ("11/22/63"). He is a figure that many have come to consider one of America's greatest presidents, making his untimely death all the more problematic. However, the amount of time dedicate to his successor following his death is disparagingly low. With exception to the 2014 film Selma (and most Civil Rights dramas for that matter), Johnson seems to be a footnote in pop culture history. The only president in the latter half of the 20th century with less presence is probably Jimmy Carter (whose only credited depiction according to Wikipedia is Hot Shots: Part Deux).

It's generally what makes All the Way a promising work. Based on the Tony-winning play by Robert Schenkkan, the story follows what is essentially the "in-between" year of Lyndon B. Johnson's time in office. The film opens with the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, leaving Johnson (Bryan Cranston) to contemplate his duties in office. He is insecure and contemplates retiring early at every turn due to discourse regarding racial segregation. As much as it is his story, All the Way takes time to explore the Civil Rights events that were put into place by Kennedy, featuring Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie) encouraging the new president to pass the bills that had been in motion. Johnson is game for it, even if this divides the nation and sends half of his congress to spend months in filibustering. 

To a large extent, All the Way and Selma are two sides of the same coin. Whereas the HBO drama focuses on the man who had the power to make change, the Oscar-winning drama released in correlation with the 50th anniversary of the Selma March. Selma was a drama that felt prescient to the moment thanks to the unfortunate racial tension caused by Ferguson and various other riots. All the Way may lack the expansive cast and in a sense a broader humanity, but it does manage to explore issues that are somehow relevant to 2016 beyond race. Whether by coincidence, there's conversations in the film about who can use specific bathrooms that parallel events going on in North Carolina (only replace blacks with transgender). Johnson is also seen several times doing things merely to appease the public as opposed to sharing a deeper belief. 

In a way, the year separating Kennedy's death and Johnson's first election mirrors the current political scene. With many politicians being quick to comment on tragedies both nationwide and internationally, the Civil Rights portion of the film feels more like the dissenters giving their protest with each impulsive moment shifting their opinion slightly in either direction. Much like Johnson, there's a certain inexperienced vibe that makes the vulnerability much easier to attack. Unlike the nominees, Johnson had the power to make a change despite many's belief that he was incompetent. Even Johnson references himself early on as the "accidental president." While this would later become a moot point thanks to Gerald Ford a decade later, it makes plenty of sense if you spend some time with Johnson.

While more progressive and professional than Donald Trump, there's a certain cantankerousness to Johnson that makes him appealing. Whereas most cinema focuses on presidents who are refined, Johnson doesn't take any time before he resorts to his no-nonsense approach to politics. Based on his penchant for recording conversations (for posterity), there are moments that may seem comical if you know nothing about the actual president. The first moment comes when a man is tailoring Johnson's pants, and the president refers to a part of his lower body as his "bunghole." He goes on to use casually offensive terms for people he doesn't like as well as hold negotiations while in the middle of using the bathroom. If anything, John is the edgy and stubborn father who you are surprised composed himself so well when addressing the nation. If nothing else, it helps to provide humorous dialogue that is often borrowed from actual conversations. 

It also is relevant to the modern political scene thanks to how much disarray was in the country in 1963. Beyond the Civil Rights movement, Johnson had to deal with the Vietnam War and of course his predecessor's death. While All the Way unfortunately covers very little else of that first year, it brings across the point that he was unready to take up the mantle. He was morally torn, especially when having to convince the nation to change their ways - specifically in the south. There are moments seen between him and his wife (played by Melissa Leo) that add a complexity to his overall character. As much as Johnson is eccentric and puts up a rude front, he lacks the self-esteem necessary to run the country. The revelation that comes at the end isn't that he was a great president, but that he was a man who started his time in office as a reluctant hero and eventually became great.

Considering that there has only been one president since Johnson to be inaugurated without an election (Ford), it is intriguing how much of a free pass that time before election is. Speaking as they didn't even have to run for office, they already have an uphill battle with the public. If one had an ego like Johnson, they could just do their best to clear the docket before the inevitable election strikes. As Johnson is seen at the end of the film approaching a podium at a celebration party in honor of the 1964 election with a massive voter turnout, there's still the spry force inside that shows that sometimes the man who tries to change the world will get thanks from those whose lives he changes. While not everything Johnson did was in that first year, his choice to tackle race relations and poverty ended up getting people effected by these conflicts to believe in him. 

What's odd is that for a president who made a lot of the American landscape what it is today, he doesn't quite get the credit he deserves. While Kennedy has the enviable charisma and unfortunate death, even Johnson's successor in Richard Nixon managed to have a notoriety that has made him equally as fascinating to conspiracy theorists. It just goes to show that sometimes if you just do your job well, people won't even notice you did anything. Cranston's performance is phenomenal and immediately iconic, adding depth to a political figure rarely seen on film. While one could only hope that there's eventually more film exploring his first full term as president, All the Way is a reflection of what can be done in just a year with ambition and stubbornness that may make more enemies, but does result in some impacting change.

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