More an engaging character sketch than an incisive portrait of the man who would become the 36th president of the United States, Rob Reiner’s “LBJ” makes for an attentively presented but oddly unrewarding viewing experience despite a persuasive Woody Harrelson lead performance as Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Beginning with the colorfully outspoken senate majority leader losing the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination to “show horse” JFK (played, not as convincingly, by Jeffrey Donovan), the story continually — and distractingly — pivots back to the ill-fated Dallas motorcade in tracing Johnson’s unconventional route to the White House.
Along the way his self-doubts are assuaged by the devoted Lady Bird (an intriguingly cast Jennifer Jason Leigh in an otherwise thankless role) and tested by his racist, longtime mentor, Sen. Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins).
But if Harrelson, charismatically conveying both aspects of the person Kennedy calls “a sensitive man with an enormous ego,” disappears into the role aided by some pronounced prosthetics, he’s not the only one to do so, and that’s the problem.
While Reiner hasn’t previously shied away from tackling social-political themes, be it an astute comedy like “The American President” or the more serious “Ghosts of Mississippi,” he maintains a curious, respectful distance here, as if preferring to let the subject matter speak for itself.
That might have been fine if he had the crisp authority of an Aaron Sorkin (who penned “The American President”) at his disposal, but while screenwriter Joey Hartstone has obviously done his homework, especially in the staging of all the smoke-filled, backstage machinations, there’s an inescapably anonymous quality to the proceedings.
“LBJ” would have benefited from a more distinctive voice.
Rating: R, for language
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: In general release