Most historical biopics feel as though the screenwriters flipped to a random section of their junior high textbook, slammed their finger on the page and said, “just put all that in there and call it good.” The movies are sappy and dull, covering all the basic moments of the historical figures life while never dipping into the juicy stuff, like sex scandals and bathroom habits. Then there are movies like Lincoln that transcend the norm, earning their own place in cinema history by being insightful, surprising, emotional, humorous and engaging. Most biopics can’t do that. Bogged down in life-spanning details of a person’s life,
many become monotonous and self-congratulatory.
But with All the Way, which chronicles the first year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s (played by Bryan Cranston) presidency, we are treated to more of a Lincoln-esque presidential pic, one that hones in on the most important part of the man’s legacy—the passing of the Voting Rights Act—and explores it with riveting depth and insight. Now I’m not going to go into an erroneous plot recount simply because its history. If you want to know about the exact proceedings and those involved you should’ve read a book or have paid attention in school. If you did neither, then I will wait for you to explore Wikipedia. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Great, welcome back. Don’t you feel smarter knowing you worked for your information? I know I do. Anyway, with this movie there’s less moody ponderings and inspirational speeches that pat the subject on the back and more rough-and-tumble boiler room politics that bring out the true nature and personality of Johnson.
This is where the movie gets its spark. Just like with Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, by letting Cranston virtually become LBJ and letting him run wild. An overly-sentimental biopic would’ve portrayed LBJ as a flawless crusader, but the truth of the matter is that the man was a bit of a prick. Sure, he was passionate when he needed to be, but behind closed doors he was crass, aggressive, intense, and would have meetings while taking a presidential shit. Cranston embraces all these qualities with gusto, utilizing all his strengths from broad comedy to brutal drama. He’s filthy and abrasive when trying to strike deals and get things done, but speaks with a confident Southern elegance when addressing the nation. But there was also a steep paranoia about him.
Johnson would act like the people in Washington were out to get him (and many of them were). This vulnerability becomes clear during a scene with him anguishing in bed, claiming everyone’s out to get him, after during a walkout of Southern democrats at the Democratic convention of 1964. He even thought his wife was against him.
LBJ wanted so desperately to lead the country after the death of John F. Kennedy, and he saw the Civil Rights Movement as the way to do it. Thanks to the incomparable Cranston leading the charge, we get a bevy of great actors, like Frank Langella, Melissa Leo, Bradley Whitford, and Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King Jr., engaging in numerous political wheeling and dealings. This keeps the movie going at a lively pace as we go from character to character as they each play in the game that is politics. It’s a world of anger, humor, deception, and greed . . . delicious greed.
Mackie in particular is the most notable of the supporting players. His MLK doesn’t have the grandeur of David Oyelowo’s version in Selma, but this is a different MLK. This is one swept up into the aforementioned desperation of the political landscape, forced to make compromises so that African Americans could truly find peace in America. So as a result this version is more defensive and tested, played with a soulful, methodic, quiet intensity by Mackie, who we must not forget is no stranger to drama in movies like The Hurt Locker and Half Nelson, despite spending most of his time attached to mechanical wings lately.
Now, by the second half the movie continues to delve deeper into LBJ’s fears of losing grip on the presidency as he fights for his first true presidential election. However, the tonal switch of electric backdoor politics to character drama seems a little swift. It’s hard to explain. Although everything in the 132-minute runtime is necessary information to realize
the film’s goals, something about it feels very drug along. Like they jumped from one problem to another one entirely in one fell swoop, feeling episodic as the movie segues from one problem to the next. But still, the character interactions are nonetheless engaging, though for some, watching politics as it truly works plays out may not sound too thrilling. “Too much talking,” as they would say. But when the discussions are this good, with dialogue that crackles with desperation and passion, there’s never such a thing as too much.
As I’ve not shut up about, this movie is most like Lincoln in that is about a man’s struggle to do what he thinks is right for the country amidst a political warzone
. But politics is full of characters, and All the Way doesn’t shy away from portraying them honestly in an arena we rarely get to see the honest side of. Basically, it’s the best kind of history lesson you could hope for. Plus, thanks to a terrific ensemble and passionate script by Robert Schenkkan you couldn’t ask for better teachers. And who doesn’t want Bryan Cranston as their cool history teacher? Communists, that’s who.