As depicted by star Bryan Cranston who won a Tony award for the role two years ago, LBJ was a human hurricane, whirling through the political scene at an intimidating speed, often talking, cajoling, and threatening the entire time. The problem with hurricanes, of course, is that they tend to flatten everything in their paths. While watching this talky and unsubtle small-screen production, it’s hard not to end up feeling as though you’re being browbeaten into submission or bludgeoned by a particularly thick history book.
There are a few scenes that crackle with tension, but they usually revolve around moments in which the president grows quiet, and the only clues to the character’s fearsome temper come from his steely eyes and tightly controlled voice. The rest of the time, “All the Way” provides plenty of opportunities for Cranston to show off his Texas twang without supplying much in the way of depth or dramatic tension.
The spine of “All the Way” consists of Johnson’s efforts to get key civil rights measures passed by a recalcitrant Congress that was filled with powerful and obstructionist Southerners. Given that we know he succeeded, as did his bid to be elected president in 1964, there’s little tension in these outcomes.
If “All the Way” worked as a character study, that would make up for its lack of suspense, but in that arena, the movie is more often insistent and repetitive than informative or evocative. Johnson was a challenging guy to work for, and his ferocious drive was ignited by the poverty he experienced as a child growing up in Texas, but the film, directed by Jay Roach and adapted by Schenkkan, never gets very far beyond that surface summary. It’s possible to respect Cranston’s fidelity to the man’s physical presence — the bowed spine, the jutting jaw, the shrewd eyes — without necessarily arriving at the conclusion that “All the Way” has all that many complex things to say about the 36th president. The “Breaking Bad” star is obviously a master of playing men whose drive to succeed is nothing short of terrifying, but the simplistic ideas at the core of the story (i.e., that LBJ was insecure and simply craved “solace”) don’t give the actor many layers to work with.
Melissa Leo is wonderful as Lady Bird Johnson, but gets very little screen time, which includes one scene in which the first lady brings her husband a sandwich. (It’s a sad commentary on the entertainment industry that this kind of by-the-numbers supporting role is all that Leo, a wildly talented Oscar winner, has been afforded in a prestigious dramatic vehicle.) As was the case with the similarly middling “Confirmation,” here, a host of male character actors get a reasonable amount of screen time, but few make a lasting impression. That’s partly due to the nature of the film’s dialogue, which is often predictable and packed with dutiful exposition.
Given that “All the Way” clocks in at just over two hours, there’s simply not enough time to bring its vast array of supporting characters to life, though Aisha Hinds is positively electric as civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (TV networks looking to get into the biopic game could do much worse than commission a movie about her). Joe Morton brings typical verve to his portrayal of the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, Stephen Root imbues his J. Edgar Hoover with an uncanny and entertaining ferocity, and Bradley Whitford and Anthony Mackie do their best with their respective roles as Hubert Humphrey and Martin Luther King Jr. All in all, however, the parts are generally underwritten and the characters’ struggles end up feeling generic and anti-climactic.
Thanks to Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” audiences know it’s possible to bring this particular slice of the recent past to vivid life through specific details, energetic and empathic direction, and incisive portraits of the flawed, courageous human beings at the heart of the civil rights struggle. “All the Way” tries to delve into that period from the perspective of the D.C. wheeler-dealer at the very top of the power structure, but this historical exploration unfortunately only goes part of the way.