Don’t count on getting smart about history by watching television.
Oh, cable’s A&E; Network has its signature “Biography” series. Its sister enterprise, the History Channel, speaks unevenly for itself. And PBS has always had a thing for yellowed photos packed away in dusty attics.
HBO is now the small screen’s most captivating window to the past, though. Witness its recent account of Winston Churchill in “The Gathering Storm” and its latest supreme effort dramatizing our 36th president’s Vietnam debacle in “Path to War.”
The eyes of Texas--and then the world--were upon him.
For a definitive LBJ, stick with Robert A. Caro, the award-laden Boswell whose third celebrated volume on Lyndon Baines Johnson, “Master of the Senate,” is now in bookstores.
The major broadcasting networks’ historical profiles have been generally less rewarding. Ignoring complexity and ambiguity, these dramas tilt toward cheap caricature and farce while opening up vast chasms between entertainment and accuracy. Believe them at your own risk.
When defining the past, film’s magnetism usually prevails over print. The problem is screen biographies that supercede other accounts--while sometimes enjoyable and even insightful on some levels--are no substitute for history. The vast bulk, in fact, are low burlesque.
Television’s most absurd LBJ? That was in a 1987 Showtime film, when Rip Torn’s squirt-sized Lyndon all but disappeared inside his own 10-gallon hat.
Although not cartoonish, Donald Moffat and G.D. Spradlin were other forgettable LBJs.
The small screen did provide one especially vivid LBJ, though. It came 15 years ago when Randy Quaid played him big, rough and thundering in “LBJ: The Early Years,” an NBC movie whose timeline ended just as Johnson’s presidency began following the 1963 murder of John F. Kennedy.
Quaid’s LBJ was complex. But he was also lewd and hot-sauced, a twanging tumbleweed with credibility, mingling with good ol’ boys and county sheriffs while barbecuing and back-slapping his way up the Texas political ladder. In the role of his career, Quaid was the longest of longhorns, capturing LBJ’s appetites, his driving energy, his overpowering personality and his tyranny.
Recalling this, it’s hard to think of America’s current president and Quaid’s Johnson as sons of the same Texas, one born to privilege, the other to poverty and earning his political spurs the old-fashioned ruthless way.
Now comes another full and robust LBJ in “Path to War,” one played by a Brit of all people.
He’s Michael Gambon, a fine actor who was featured prominently in Robert Altman’s Oscar-nominated “Gosford Park.” His most-praised starring role on TV was in “The Singing Detective,” Dennis Potter’s remarkable British serial about a man slipping in and out of fantasy while bedridden with acute psoriasis.
Although burly, Gambon hasn’t the height for LBJ, and whatever dialect he’s speaking, no Joe Bobs in Texas are likely to recognize it. But wow! Gambon’s performance, from the inside out, is outstanding. He not only mimics Johnson’s physical appearance--face and elephant ears sagging with his spirits--but digs deep for the torment he must have felt while drifting into the bog of the Vietnam War and out of the White House.
Face bloated by self-doubt, here is a haunted figure whose senatorial brilliance and domestic policies would leave their mark, but whose presidency ultimately would be felled by a war he inherited from his predecessor and then widened.
Directed confidently by John Frankenheimer, “Path to War” is a powerful expression of mourning--at once for LBJ and his Great Society that could have been greater and for a nation in prolonged agony because of miscalculations by its president and his closest advisors.
Heading them is Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the numbers-crunching holdover from Kennedy. Alec Baldwin gives him a slicked-back arrogance and bloodlessness that only later is softened by glints of humanity. Peering icily through his famous spectacles, McNamara is the first here to articulate the domino theory as justification for pouring more U.S. forces into Vietnam. When Johnson worries about “this problem I got in Southeast Asia” undermining his ambitious social agenda, McNamara assures him that “sustained military action” will buckle North Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh.
There’s a stunning scene here with Johnson getting conflicting advice at Camp David from McNamara and the president’s trusted counselor, Clark Clifford, a wise pragmatist who argues that escalating the war “will ruin us and all the great good you have sought to do.”
Although Donald Sutherland’s Clifford looks every bit the white-haired Moses, it’s McNamara’s commandment that Johnson heeds at this critical crossroads, propelling the U.S. and himself toward separate versions of the Dien Bien Phu defeat suffered by the French in 1954.
“I just don’t think we’re gonna be able to beat these people,” a more pessimistic McNamara says privately as the U.S. sinks into this quicksand despite rosy reports and inflated body counts by the military. Many years later, he’ll make his mea culpa public.
We see Johnson here at his most commanding, meanwhile, his hand on everyone’s shoulder while making different promises to different political factions. One moment he is raging, the next telling his cabinet a coarse joke, the next deploying a half-whisper to softly bully Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Gary Sinise) in the White House.
And we see him vulnerable, loathing the Kennedys obsessively while fearing them politically. At one point, Daniel Giat’s script has him exploding at a line of TV monitors, for in front of him in triplicate is the antichrist. Ho Chi Minh? No, Bobby Kennedy, beginning his own run for president by criticizing the war he once endorsed as his brother’s attorney general.
“There’s blood on your hands, you traitor!” Johnson shouts before burying his head in his thick hands. Soon he’s making his famous TV address announcing he won’t seek reelection.
“Path to War” bulks up what many have written about these White House years. The buck didn’t just land on LBJ’s desk as antiwar chants crescendoed. It decapitated him.
Tempest in a teabag: CBS News is being unfairly attacked for telecasting--against the wishes of his family and the U.S. government--portions of a videotape in Arabic made by captors of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Instead, CBS should be praised for its enterprise and restraint.
This was a sizzling topic Wednesday in those great pantheons of cool intellect, talk radio and cable’s 24-hour news. “Another crass commercial ratings move,” bemoaned Time’s Margaret Carlson, a knee-jerk commentator on CNN. Oh, yeah. As if crass ratings ploys offended CNN. Not that Carlson helped her credibility by stressing that CBS was also “the network of ‘Survivor’ and ‘Fear Factor.’” Actually, “Fear Factor” is NBC’s coarse cargo.
There was more. The CBS telecast “violated basic journalistic standards,” William McGowan, author of “Coloring the News,” charged on MSNBC.
My eye. In fact, it upheld high standards by airing the tape in the context of a news story and editing it responsibly so that nothing graphic or gratuitous was shown.
CBS was heartless and played into terrorists’ hands, Pearl’s family said in a statement.
Untrue. Instead, CBS omitted the tape’s violence, which reportedly included Pearl’s throat being cut. As for doing terrorists’ bidding, that happens each time terrorism--including the Sept. 11 attack--is reported by the media, giving perpetrators the exposure they want. Being used this way is usually unavoidable, unless viewers would prefer a news blackout and ignorance.
The more we know of our enemies’ tactics, moreover, the better our chances to combat them. “CBS Evening News” hoped the footage would show Americans “the full impact of the propaganda war” waged against them, anchor Dan Rather explained in Tuesday’s program.
Earlier, the full tape had been widely circulated on the Internet. CBS said it obtained the tape from a “dissident Saudi Arabian journalist” who discovered it on an Internet site targeting young Saudis, and that it was “a cold-blooded recruiting poster for America’s enemies.”
CBS’ edited version showed Pearl fleetingly, at one point being made to say under apparent duress that he and his parents were Jewish. The anti-Semitic intent of that was obvious. Although one can understand how reliving this would be agonizing for Pearl’s family, the greater good dictated that it be shown. Besides, no one had to watch.
“I wish we had it, and I wish we could run it,” Jerry Nachman, MSNBC’s new editor in chief, said on “Hardball” Wednesday. Good for him, and good for CBS.
“Path to War” premieres Saturday night at 8 on HBO. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).
Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@ latimes.com.