HBO's All the Way, with Bryan Cranston as the President, recounts LBJ's accomplishments and policies that are ground zero for the mudslinging war games of this year’s presidential race
HBO, Saturday, 8:00 PM ET
By Lori Acken
Most of us know Lyndon Baines Johnson as the droning, jowly Texan who became president when Lee Harvey Oswald trained his gun on John F. Kennedy and quashed America’s Camelot dreams. But not a day goes by that we aren’t touched by LBJ’s policies, the social-minded core of which is ground zero for the mudslinging war games of this year’s presidential race.
“Very few people remember Lyndon Johnson for his accomplishments,” says Bryan Cranston, whose ingenious portrayal of the 36th president in Broadway’s All the Way earned him and the play much-deserved Tony Awards in 2014. “What they remember him for are the tragedy and his disappointments, and mainly, Vietnam. What All the Way highlighted is the extensive domestic achievements that he was able to develop in the five years that he was president.”
Cranston says that dichotomy — coupled with the fact that Johnson was one hell of a rip-roaring guy — made the opportunity to step into his shoes irresistible. So irresistible that, when Way ended its Broadway run, Cranston teamed up with playwright Robert Schenkkan, director Jay Roach and co-executive producer Steven Spielberg to expand All the Way into a riveting, star-packed, HBO film, which premieres Saturday.
Yes, All the Way features well-known Johnson traits and moments — the tugged beagle ears, the penchant for obscenities and epithets, the colorful instructions for his tailor, the infamous “Daisy” ad. But its — and Cranston’s — real achievement is showcasing Johnson’s peerless skills as a politician. He took just 11 months to expand Kennedy’s New Frontier dreams into his own Great Society legislation, knowing it was all the time he had to convince America to go “all the way with LBJ” in the ’64 election.
Watch Bryon Cranston's time-lapse transformation into LBJ
“If you look at what he accomplished — civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid, fair housing, education and consumer protection — all of those things that we are still arguing about in 2016, he started in 1964,” Schenkkan says. To make it happen, Johnson perfected a dazzling persuasive tactic known as “the Johnson treatment” — a skill the film mines for comic and dramatic gold. And one that proved particularly useful with a pair of powerful men on opposite sides of the political spectrum — civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie) and Johnson’s political mentor, Georgia Sen. Richard Russell (Frank Langella).
Avowed Dixiecrat Russell urges Johnson to choose party loyalty over personal conviction, then forces the president’s hand, sending Johnson into a whirlwind of political gamesmanship that is the heart of All the Way. Johnson and King openly distrust each other but grasp that each operates in multiple worlds and that oftentimes baby steps would have to do to end the injustice around them.
“The Voting Rights Act of ’65 was the crown jewel,” Cranston explains. “Johnson knew it could not be part of the Civil Rights Act. Because everybody knew once that happens, once [African- Americans] had this unfettered path to voting, there would be a seismic shift in politics — and he was right.”
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