LBJ has an outstanding cast and a solid performance by Woody Harrelson in the lead role, but director Rob Reiner's film is a little too watered down and doesn't take a wide enough look at all the aspects of Lyndon Johnson to make this a definitive biopic. Add that to the fact that this is a completely bare-bones release in terms of extras and contains average A/V specs, and there's no strong reason to add this one to your collection. Rent It.
LBJ came and went from theaters so quickly, I honestly thought this might have been a made-for-cable biopic when I received this release for review. But a little Internet research shows that this Rob Reiner movie (everyone remember when he was one of the biggest and best directors in Hollywood?) actually played at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2016 and got a limited and short-lived theatrical release in the United States last November. It never gained much traction, and there's a reason for that – the movie fails to give us a full portrait of Lyndon Johnson, the man, choosing to focus on his accomplishments instead of also including his failures.
I've always been a big fan of Woody Harrelson as an actor, and he once again does an admiral job here – showing us a Johnson who is as foul-mouthed as he is crude. That fits the historical Johnson, who once got on the phone with the Haggar pants company to ask them to make him some that were a bit more comfortable in the crotch (that conversation is reenacted here, although the movie gets the time/place wrong). Harrelson is required to act through the other side of some questionable makeup work (he only looks like Johnson some of the time, depending on camera angle and lighting), but mostly just looks like Woody Harrelson in old-age makeup. The makeup used to age some of the other actors is equally borderline. Thankfully, what assistance Harrelson doesn't get in the prosthetics department he more than makes up for with his performance. If LBJ has shortcomings – and it has quite a few – it's not because of Harrelson's portrayal.
The movie begins where you might suspect it would: with John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) landing at Love Field, Texas, on November 22, 1963. The first part of the movie flashes back and forth between the day of JFK's assassination to the events that happened beforehand. Covered are Johnson's own run at the presidency during the 1960 election, losing to JFK in a vote at the Democratic National Convention, and then – much to the chagrin of JFK's brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David) – being selected by JFK to be his running mate. Once Johnson makes the decision to take the VP spot, he's determined to make the vice presidency something more than what it has been throughout history, but Bobby Kennedy seems to stop LBJ at every turn. To try and keep Johnson busy, the Kennedy brothers put him in charge of a committee on equal employment opportunity – giving LBJ his first insight into just how important JFK's proposed civil rights bill (sent to Congress in June of 1963) was. The bill got no traction during JFK's life, largely due to Southern Democrats (of which LBJ was one) who opposed it.
The best part of LBJ comes post-assassination, when Johnson is handed the reins of power. Realizing that the country will never love him the way it loved the slain president, and also realizing that the only path to election (less than a year away) was to carry on the legacy of JFK, Johnson decides not only to support the former president's civil rights bill, but not to compromise on it – threating his Southern Democratic friends (represented by Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins)) to call them out publicly if they did not support him and the bill.
The biggest problem with LBJ is that it's not really a fair representation of who Johnson was. Rob Reiner (from a screenplay by Joey Hartstone) has chosen to gloss over the issue of Vietnam. It only gets passing mention in the film (granted, due in large part that this movie only covers the very beginning of the LBJ presidency) and only a text coda at the end refers to LBJ's escalation in Vietnam, something that would become such an albatross around his neck that he chose not to see re-election in 1968. And while there's nothing wrong with showing Johnson's successes, as this movie does, it's unfair both to history and the legacy of LBJ not to try and show a more rounded and complex version of the man, rather than the simplistic characterization we get here. Still, Harrelson is fun to watch and, at the very least, one hopes that viewers who come to LBJ with little knowledge of the 36th president will at use this movie as a springboard for more reading and research on their own.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
LBJ gets sworn in on Blu-ray in a standard keepcase from Sony – the type designed with a little flap you need to pull down on in order to open the case. Aside from the 25GB single-layer Blu-ray, the case includes a single insert advertising the recently-canceled The Librarians series on one side and the upcoming David Tennant film Bad Samaritan on the other side. The Blu-ray contains no front-loaded trailers, and the menu design is simply a still shot of Woody Harrelson as LBJ sitting at a desk, with menu selections horizontally across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is Region A locked.
LBJ was shot digitally using both Arri Alexa XT and Arri Amira cameras. It is presented on Blu-ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image here is about what one would expect (and matches other titles I have reviewed) using Arri digital equipment. Scenes that take place outdoors and in the daylight are quite colorful and detailed, while indoor (or on-set) shots are slightly a bit murkier, with decent (but not inky deep) black levels and occasionally a bit of noise creeping into the background.
The quality of the image actually sometimes hurts this film, as viewers will be able to pick up on the less-than-Oscar-worthy makeup work that has been done on actors Woody Harrelson (LBJ) and Jeffrey Donovan (JFK). Otherwise, this is a good-looking, if still quite short of spectacular, transfer from Sony with no major complaints/glitches noted in the image.
The only audio available on this Blu-ray is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, that, quite frankly, is a bit of a disappointment. Almost everything – even the movie's musical soundtrack – appears to be designed for maximum output through the front three speakers. The rears are used throughout the film, but they're mixed so low that they're only detectible during crowd sequences or some scenes that are quiet enough that you can pick up on the score being enhanced by the back speakers.
Since LBJ is primarily a movie that is dialogue-heavy, the above issues don't take away too much from one's enjoyment of the movie. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible, so that's a plus for this mix. Still, it's hard to get excited about the audio offered here, and it's reflected in my rating.
There are no bonus materials on this release. Not so much as a trailer. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Given the fact that both star Woody Harrelson and director Rob Reiner are well-known for their liberal beliefs, it's kind of amazing that they give President Lyndon Johnson such a glowing biopic in LBJ. While the movie doesn't shy away from some of Johnson's eccentricities, it gives him a pass on Vietnam and the story of the movie only covers up to the very opening of his term in office. Rent It.