Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
It is perhaps an appropriate election year to remind ourselves that change in this country takes blood, sweat and tears. At a time when the nation feels more divided than ever, it’s healthy to look back at one of the turning points in the political system of the United States, a fight for civil rights that pushed the establishment so hard that it forever reshaped the electoral college. Think about this amazing fact: Before the Presidential election in 1964, Georgia had never voted Republican. They have done so in the last five elections. The “Republican South” wasn’t always so much of a given, and HBO’s “All the Way” makes the case that a lot of this political shift started because Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the importance of civil rights when he ascended to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, turning it into the election issue of that year and provoking the ire of a GOP establishment that wasn’t on the right side of history.
This excellent drama, carried by a truly incredible performance from Bryan Cranston, captures the difficulty of the political machine. "All the Way" can be a little frustratingly thin, in that it tries to do a bit too much in 132 minutes, turning complex political figures into “plot device characters” (ones who come into frame, serve their purpose for the protagonist, and exit stage right), but there’s so much worthy of discussion in the piece that “All the Way” never drags. And Cranston should clear some more mantle space for a future Emmy and Golden Globe to sit next to the Tony he won for this role.
Adapted from his play of the same name, writer Robert Schenkkan, working with director Jay Roach, is careful not to make “All the Way” feel like a filmed play. A cinematic score by James Newton Howard, and fluid, complex camera work by Jim Denault help that effort, but it’s the engaging turn by Cranston that really magnifies the source material. One can see why he was so praised on stage (I never saw the play) as he embodies Johnson, diving into both his outlandish behavior (having meetings while on the toilet) and complex moral code. In many ways, it is everything that Cranston’s performance in “Trumbo,” also directed by Roach, was not. While that performance felt like a caricature, Johnson feels well-rounded and complex from minute one of “All the Way.”
In that first minute, Johnson is on Air Force One, with a still-bloody Jackie Kennedy, after her husband’s assassination. He’s going to take the Oath of Office to become the President of the United States. In his first speech as President, Johnson affirms that the Civil Rights bill his predecessor started will be his priority. Johnson’s former mentor and friend Senator Richard Russell Jr. (a perfect and understated Frank Langella) isn’t too happy with this decision, but Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) embraces the directive, positioning himself to be Johnson’s Vice President in the upcoming election. Most of all, Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie) recognizes that he will have to work carefully with Johnson to get what his movement demands from the government.