“All the Way” – a Belated Review
A bit late getting to see this and later still responding to it.
“All the Way with LBJ” was a great campaign slogan back in 1964.
So much better than “Second Base with Whatshisface” which was the best that the Goldwater camp could come up with.
Structurally this play/film has much in common with the Spielberg/Lewis Lincoln movie that came out a few years ago. In both movies you have very very critically acclaimed actors offering performances so close, so credible, so persuasive that you’re sure you’re in the room with the real thing. Both movies deal with the passage of landmark legislation. Spielberg’s Lincoln, however, can depict the passing of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery through congress as the crowning achievement of Abe’s last few months in office at the end of a long and destructive military conflict. Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, on the other hand, depicts the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the supreme achievement of LBJ’s time in office, but taking place during his first full year in office and at the beginning of a long and destructive military conflict.
Like Lincoln, this is a story about a passionate pragmatist, a man desperate to ensure that the best possible outcome (even if that outcome is only the least worst outcome) is attained by more or less any means necessary.
The scenes with LBJ’s mentor Richard Russell are especially effective given that Frank Langella so memorably played LBJ’s successor in the White House in Frost-Nixon. LBJ is warned that any commitment to civil rights and desegregation will destroy the Democratic Party in the South for decades to come. Decades later, this destruction seems as complete and lasting as ever.
Perhaps the weakest scene is the Tonkin Incident scene – which looks as though it was imposed by a board committee who didn’t trust audiences to remember that the Vietnam War was kind of a big deal. A ludicrously truncated scene has LBJ railing at the decent and prudent Hubert Humphrey in an attempt to squeeze too much history into a five minute segment.
(Humphrey emerges as one of the most likable players available and we remind ourselves of the President he could and should have been had not Nixon illegally torpedoed Vietnamese peace talks just ahead of the 1968 election.)
As Martin Luther King, Anthony Mackie demonstrates the difficulties of ploughing a central furrow, operating within and without the political establishment at one and the same time, keeping in touch with the mood on the streets while retaining access to the Oval Office.
Passionate pragmatism is such a scarce commodity in modern political life that this drama takes on a fascination all of its own. We perhaps don’t learn what LBJ ultimately believes or stands for (not that I think that dramas need to do that) but we do get a sense of someone whose political senses are so highly developed that he exposes himself as crassly insensitive to real suffering in real time while at the same time absolutely committed to doing something somehow to make life better for someone somewhere.