HBO’s All the Way Is a Large-Scale Account of Lyndon B. Johnson With Little to Say

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Bryan Cranston and Anthony Mackie in All the Way. Photo: HBO/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

It's been a while since I saw a TV movie that had everything going for it, yet failed to be memorable. All the Way should have been a classic: electrifying, surprising, moving, artful. It's not. It's the kind of film that's admirable in every detail but that lacks an ineffable spark; everyone involved is committed, serious, faithful. But the result is the equivalent of a note-and-letter-perfect rendition of a song that seems bizarrely oblivious to the music. Where's the feeling? Where's the poetry? What happened?

Robert Schenkkan's Tony-winning Broadway drama about President Lyndon Baines Johnson's attempt to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and attain re-election after John F. Kennedy's death was boisterous and intelligent onstage — not a great play or a great production, but so engaging and thoughtful that it seemed churlish to complain about what wasn't there. Bryan Cranston's live-wire rendition of Johnson was just right for the medium: as disreputable and colorful and LBJ himself. He was so right as a larger-than-life man, practically a caricature of himself, that his makeup, while excellent, didn't have to carry the weight of conviction, because the text and Cranston's life force did that. The production also found ingenious ways to show legislative arm-twisting and back-room skulduggery unfolding in different locations without falsifying mundane details, such as the fact that key participants were talking on the phone or communicating through underlings or via letter rather than dealing with each other face-to-face. In many scenes, the staging and lighting created the theatrical equivalent of split-screen compositions in a movie. And there were moments where Cranston and his costars put across subtle human moments by letting the most basic theatrical devices — such as spotlit monologues or silent moments of doubt — bring you deep inside a character's personality.

Director Jay Roach's HBO adaptation demonstrates no such ingenuity. It's unfortunate proof that burning money without imagination can generate nothing but smoke. The praise that many of my colleagues have lavished on it baffles me: The cable network's generous approach to production values permits theatrical suggestion to be replaced here with scale. 

The recreation of the 1964 Democratic convention, for example, is impressive in its thoroughness: In its opening moments, Johnson moves through throngs of extras, brushes past his running mate, Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford, wearing a skullcap and beetle eyebrows). The camera leans back to follow Johnson as he and his wife, Lady Bird (Melissa Leo), ascend the stage to accept the party's nomination, their bodies almost silhouetted by a spotlight hanging from the rafters; a giant Citizen Kane–style black-and-white photo of Cranston-as-LBJ hangs behind the lectern. As the president looks out over what looks to be thousands of delegates holding signs and balloons, their outlines disappearing into a mist of cigarette smoke, you get a sense of how big this movie is (or appears to be), and it's hard not to appreciate all the work that went into every frame.  

But aside from admiration for the completeness of the moment it's hard to feel much of anything, because this movie has replaced the idea of LBJ with an uncanny photorealistic facsimile of LBJ — a prosthetically spot-on approximation of the drawling, glad-handing president, reproduced right down to the cauliflower ears and dangling earlobes — and done more or less the same miracle, or anti-miracle, with the production itself. It's not a tradeoff worth making. All the Way feels embalmed by all the wrong kinds of fidelity. The film version of Cranston's LBJ only comes to life when he's listening to other characters or silently brooding to himself (while voice-over narration articulates his fears and doubts); otherwise he's a Madam Tussaud's waxworks LBJ that can move and speak, a testament to latex craftsmanship and the careful study of newsreels. The bigger his LBJ is in this film, the less credible and interesting he is. Roach seems to realize this in scenes where LBJ rants and raves, holds court and gesticulates, because you see the camera pulling back, practically putting a proscenium arch around the action, but no matter how far back he goes, it's never far enough. 

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Anthony Mackie), with whom LBJ spars over civil rights, has been brought to life with just as much attention paid to fine points, but this, too, is a tactical mistake. Mackie's posture and intonation, his searching and slightly baleful stare, his haircut, his suits, are all just about right. But Mackie and Whitford and Cranston — and Leo, who's close-but-no-cigar as Lady Bird — consistently nail the lyrics here, but miss the music. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Anthony Hopkins as Tricky Dick in Nixon, Bruce Greenwood as JFK in Thirteen Days, David Oyelowo as King in Selma, were superficially, even thoroughly convincing in terms of look and voice, but they had presences, which is more important; they didn't seem like great Saturday Night Live impersonations dropped into a dramatic context. 

In nearly every scene your attention wanders to something other than the essence of human interaction: the way Cranston sucks in his lips like a man anticipating future tooth troubles before he cracks a joke or needles a conversation-mate; the unbroken line of lights around the Oval Office set; the fact that the amphibious car that LBJ drives across a river at his Texas ranch is real, not a special effect. It all amounts to the most honorable kind of shame, because the story of the contentious relationship between MLK and LBJ — depicted somewhat controversially in Selma, but not all that differently from the way it's envisioned here — is a gold mine of observation about the American character. King and Johnson are magnificent characters in their own rights, fascinating even in inferior films, plays and TV productions, and they also serve as handy real-world metaphors for real-life viewpoints on race relations: King's nagging revolutionary passion constantly goosing the president's earnest white Southern liberalism to be more daring. 

What a classic this could have been. What a misfire it is. Too bad.