HBO’s “Path to War” is a fascinating, superbly acted expose of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Directed by John Frankenheimer and written by first-timer Daniel Giat, pic is sure to draw parallels to current politics while forcing its target audience of aging baby boomers and hippies to revisit an era of turbulence and passion. Frankenheimer, a master at handling political hot potatoes, offers up an even-handed look at the undoing of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society mystique by a war he never believed in.
Michael Gambon gives a powerful performance as Johnson, the bombastic president whose ill-fated administration became synonymous with a disastrous military conflict instead of with the civil rights and social programs that were his original agenda.
Pic begins with Johnson’s inaugural ball in 1965 after a landslide election. He begins his administration with grand designs on implementing his vision of the Great Society. But as he tries to take on civil-rights issues at the request of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Curtis McClarin) and stare down Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Gary Sinise, in a repeat performance from that Frankenheimer-directed TV pic), the long-brewing situation in Vietnam interferes.
Vietnam had been in a state of upheaval since the end of World War II, and by 1965 armed conflict had drawn an increasing number of U.S. soldiers.
To strategize how to end the conflict, Johnson gathers his advisers, many inherited from the Kennedy administration, including the hero of the Cuban missile crisis, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin), special adviser Clark Clifford (Donald Sutherland), Secretary of State Dean Rusk (John Aylward), undersecretary of state George Ball (Bruce McGill) and special assistant for national security affairs McGeorge Bundy (Cliff DeYoung). Despite Johnson’s better judgment and campaign promises to the contrary, Project Rolling Thunder is created in effort to stifle Viet Cong offenses.
Over Johnson’s years in office, his advisers waffle, money for social programs is diverted to the war and the public as well as old allies turn against the president, as it becomes painfully clear the war cannot be won.
Gambon commands the screen as Johnson, carefully balancing ego and determination, defiance and defeat. His portrait of Johnson is an American dream turned Shakespearean tragedy as he gives credence to the notion that four years as a U.S. president adds 10 years to one’s life.
Neither Gambon nor Felicity Huffman as Lady Bird Johnson really capture the physicality of their characters; Huffman squints too much and Gambon offers a less than convincing Texas accent. Still, the two convey a unique partnership dynamic, with Lady often hovering over a man with a heart condition in the most stressful situations.
Baldwin is contrastingly subdued as McNamara, a man high on his political clout until his conscience plagues him and his family. Sutherland is more of an emotional match for Gambon’s Johnson, acting as the voice of reason despite repeated rebukes.
The supporting cast, a virtual who’s who of Hollywood, is a testament to the caliber of the work here. The film features more than 60 speaking parts, but it’s still surprising to see talented actors such as Diana Scarwid and Tom Skerritt reduced to just a few lines. On the other hand, it’s nice to see character actors such as Bruce McGill have a chance to shine.
Director Frankenheimer provides a steady hand, faltering only in one or two forced scenes intended to convey Johnson’s growing alienation both politically and personally. Lensing by Stephen Goldblatt makes great use of Waldemar Kalinowski’s re-creation of the Johnson White House but blunders with a few superimposed images of outdoor Washington landmarks. The unfortunate hair and clothing styles of the time are well documented by May Routh.