In 1963, US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, cut down in his prime in a moment that shook American history. His youth, his vibrancy and his easy charm made him an incredibly charismatic figure, and his legacy lives on around the world. By comparison, the man who was forced to succeed him is less of a popular figure, and that man was Lyndon B. Johnson. A Vice President made President by unfortunate circumstances, All The Way depicts his first year in office, and offers a fascinating look at one of the lesser-known presidents of modern times, anchored by a fantastic lead performance.
After the death of Kennedy, Vice President Johnson (Bryan Cranston) is elevated to the highest office in the land. In his first speech, he outlines his commitment to his predecessor’s Civil Rights Bill, but comes up against considerable opposition from his own party, including his former mentor and friend Senator Richard Russell Jr. (Frank Langella). Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) embraces the directive, eager to become the new Vice President, and Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie) has to work with the President to get exactly what his movement demands. As an election approaches, this Bill and the Vietnam War are just two of the obstacles preventing Johnson’s path back to the White House from being an easy one.
A lot of the success of All The Way is centred in Cranston’s performance. Cranston won a Tony for this role two years ago, and in this adaptation of the play of the same name, he brings the same electrifying performance to the screen. His Johnson is a force of nature, cajoling and strong-arming his agenda through the US political system. There are two sides to the man, however – as well as the forceful politician, we also get numerous looks at his vulnerability. Johnson gives Cranston a lot to work with, but he chooses to play it by way of nuance rather caricature, much to the film’s benefit.
Cranston is exceptional but, with so much of the film focused on him, other characters tend to fall by the wayside, with even major supporting characters being little more than sounding boards for the President (this is particularly evident for both Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover and Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson). Whitford’s Humphrey exists as part of Johnson’s moral conscience, as does Mackie’s King, whose somewhat more thoughtful portrayal helps render human a man normally reduced to symbolism (he has little to do, alas – if you care about King’s role in this story, go and watch last year’s Selma). Langella comes close to rivalling Cranston during his brief time on screen with a nicely understated performance, but All The Way very much has the feeling of a one man story with other characters tacked on as decoration.
The script does a wonderful job of dealing with a deeply interesting team in American politics, and it manages to help make a lot of complex politics and history easy to understand and follow – there are points, however, where it feels there is too much going on and it can’t really spend the time it wants to, nor explain in as much detail as it wants to. Obviously, there is a lot to contend with, but perhaps a slightly more focused approach would have helped the film feel slicker.
All The Way is a solid historical drama, and its central performance is an absolute gem – it feels larger than life, yet strangely applicable to the man. Where it fails, then, is in being able to devote time to its secondary characters – in expanding upon them, in making them more than the most basic of character sketches – and it does suffer in part from that.
Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Anthony Mackie (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Bryan Cranston (Lyndon B. Johnson), Bradley Whitford (Hubert Humphrey), Melissa Leo (Lady Bird Johnson), Frank Langella (Sen. Richard Russell), Stephen Root (J. Edgar Hoover)
Running Time: 132 Mins
Image credit: http://utbgeek.com/tv/all-the-way-long-lead-tease-hbo/