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Woody Harrelson Plays the Tragic Hero in ‘LBJ’

He’s a winner in Rob Reiner’s best film since ‘The American President’

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 38 minutes

Stars: Jeffrey Donovan, Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh 

Director: Rob Reiner

Please presidential pardon me if it took a few scenes before I bought Wild Man Woody Harrelson as Lyndon B. Johnson in Rob Reiner's winning political biopic. There are the distracting prosthetics — the Dumbo ears, the T-square jaw — that at first dominate the Texas-born actor's face. And then the stupendous Harrelson fights back and does the deep dive into a complex, compelling characterization of our 36th president, a master politician.

Harrelson's Johnson hits some of the familiar outrageous anecdotes — the then-Senate majority leader taking a meeting while sitting on the toilet, as his aides literally turn up their noses. And there's that phone call where the big man intimidates a senator while explaining to his tailor on the phone that he needs his pants especially roomy in the crotch to let not-so-little Lyndon swing. But while these sidenotes amuse, what Harrelson makes real is the way Johnson worked the halls of power, rolling up his sleeves, cutting deals, building leverage and wielding it. 

The script, by the talented Joey Hartstone (TV's The Good Fight), pulls from the playbook of double Oscar nominee Peter Morgan (The QueenFrost/Nixon). That is, the scope of the character-driven drama is tight and for the most part sharply focused. In less than 100 minutes, it covers LBJ's bitter loss of the 1960 presidential nomination to John Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), his ascension to president in the wake of JFK's 1963 assassination, and his brilliant passage of Kennedy's legacy bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Woody Harrelson in 'LBJ'

Everett Collection

At 56, Woody Harrelson plays our 36th president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, in "LBJ."

While some of the screenplay's narrative time shifts are distracting, and I feared yet another detailed reenactment of the Dallas assassination, for the most part this is Reiner's best movie in years. He can be hit or miss as a director — the classic The Princess Bride versus the forgettable Being Charlie — but here his liberal passion seems to override his soggier impulses to rehabilitate a figure better remembered for bungling the Vietnam War than making substantive legislative change for racial equality. 

In contrast to last year's fetishistic Oscar-bait Jackie with Natalie Portman wandering through the White House, eyes glazed, in blood-stained couture, here the Camelot myth is subsidiary to Johnson's rougher-edged reality. That said, Donovan (TV's Burn Notice) is terrific in the small yet significant role of JFK, toning down the character from legend to leader, and embodying the contrast between Harvard elites and Johnson's Southern Dems. Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh tries her hardest to breathe life into Lady Bird Johnson, but a viewer would be hard pressed to see an individual there — her character exists solely as a backboard to her husband, revealing his vulnerability in pillow talk or his lovability through her puppy-dog eyes.

Harrelson and Reiner have succeeded in creating the rare mature Hollywood political movie, exploring those qualities that make an effective president in his own era and those that come to define his legacy over decades. In a time when Americans wonder how we can make the federal government functional again, LBJ presents a portrait of a flawed man navigating challenging circumstances. He accomplished as much as he did through cunning rather than charisma — and by being the hardest-working man in Washington, the James Brown of the White House.