The HBO adaptation of Robert Schenkkan's Tony-award winning play "All the Way," which chronicles President Lyndon Johnson's struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act and then secure reelection, may seem to be about personality but it's really about politics.
Personality is a key part in the film, to be sure. Between the main character and the man who plays him, "All the Way" has personality to spare. LBJ was near-caricature Texan; a big man known for being folksy, blunt, profane, funny and often furious. And much of the film's draw, and pleasures, stem from watching Bryan Cranston work the character (not to mention the prosthetic nose and ears).
Having followed the "Breaking Bad" Emmy-run with his own Tony for "All the Way," Cranston is, after all, something of a national icon himself, the sort of actor who occasionally hangs with the actual president, the sort of actor about which people say "he can do anything."
He can certainly "do" LBJ, and with obvious relish. But there's a canny play-within-a-play aspect to the performance. LBJ worked his character too; he may have been a personality but mostly he was a politician.
And "All the Way," premiering Saturday at 8 p.m., shows exactly what that looks like.
Sidelining many of the most inspiring aspects of the civil rights movement, the film focuses solely on the nitty-gritty and often alarming way in which Johnson juggled the opposing demands of movement leaders, like Martin Luther King (Anthony Mackie), with those of Southern Democrats, embodied here by Johnson friend and mentor Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella), to force the act through a divided and, in many cases, openly racist Congress. And then how he continued that juggling act to secure his nomination in the 1964 presidential race.
So while "All the Way" is a biopic, it's also a tale of everyone's current super-favorite topic: Washington politics.
That means the film, adapted by Schenkkan, can seem wonkish, self-conscious, infuriatingly dismissive of certain characters — Melissa Leo's Lady Bird cries out for her own film, as does Aisha Hinds' Fanny Lou Hamer — and oddly paced. None of Johnson's "triumphs" are played as such — the Civil Rights Act is passed midway through the film, and the whole thing ends on an almost bitterly interior note.
The closest thing "All the Way" has to a traditional climax involves Johnson shouting into a phone. He's attempting to keep the Southern delegates from walking out of the 1964 Democratic National Convention after Mississippi and Alabama left in protest of Johnson's decision to seat two delegates from the newly formed, and mostly black, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
So not, you know, the "I have a dream" speech.
Held together almost entirely by Cranston's performance, "All the Way" seems at times intentionally counter-intuitive; so much of the story's advancement depends on deals that no one feels really great about that it's hard to find the kind of catharsis many expect from these sorts of films.
And that's exactly why it's so important.
In recent years, political compromise has become a synonym for surrender, politics itself a dirty word. "All the Way" shows a president who helped change a nation through compromise, who used his knowledge and understanding of Washington to wheel and deal justice into law.
And he did it at a time when Congress was possibly even more divided than it is now. (News clips of openly racist rhetoric offer a chilling reminder of what a nation divided into "us" and "them" looked like.)
Cranston's Johnson himself is not a particularly nice man. He swings between insecurity and self-aggrandizement, genuine nobility and petty fears. But as Lady Bird spells out for those who have not noticed, he has been tasked with the near-impossible: First he must coax his fellow Dixiecrats into accepting the end of segregation while keeping King and the increasingly incensed civil rights activists from walking away. And then ensure it's not all immediately undone by Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.
As Johnson says when describing what he sees as Hubert Humphrey's (Bradley Whitford) fatal flaw: "You don't bring nice to a knife fight."
"All the Way," then, is one prolonged knife fight. It may not have the wit-and-parry swordplay of an ensemble drama or the epic feel of so many modern clashes between good 'n' evil. But it brings one man vividly to life to explain how he got one tremendously important job done.
'All the Way'
When: 8 p.m. Saturday