It is always nice to see a good actor finally getting a career boost he deserves, and Bryan Cranston is one of such examples during last 10 years. While this veteran actor has steadily worked for more than 30 years, he came to be noticed by many of us only after his electrifying performance in recent TV drama series “Breaking Bad”, and then he has kept showing us more of his immense talent as giving a number of notable movie performances including his Oscar-nominated turn in “Trumbo” (2015).
In HBO TV movie “All the Way”, which is adapted from the Tony-winning stage play of the same name, Cranston plays Lyndon B. Johnson, and he is utterly spellbinding in the role which previously garnered him a Tony and will definitely bring another Emmy to him. Besides looking real and authentic on the outside as required, his multifaceted performance vividly channels Johnson’s larger-than-life personality and shrewd political mind, and Cranston invigorates every minute of his scenes as leading us to the illuminating insights into the Johnson Presidency and its turbulent era, which indubitably feels timeless as mirroring another tumultuous transitional period which the American society is struggling through at present.
The movie begins its story shortly after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963. After Kennedy’s death is pronounced, Johnson, who was Kennedy’s vice president, becomes the next president of the United States as returning to Washington D.C., and he is already well aware of a tricky situation he has to tread very carefully. Besides stabilizing the whole country still in shock and grief, he must get the Civil Rights Act passed at the US Congress as his predecessor wanted, and he discerns a golden opportunity from Kennedy’s death, but many Southern Democratic congressmen, who do not welcome racial equality much just like many of their white voters, remain to be a hefty major obstacle as before. As the 1964 US presidential election is approaching, Johnson becomes more conscious of party unity, and angering Southerners on which his party has depended for many decades is something he wants to avoid as much as possible.
While Senator Richard Russell, Jr. (Frank Langella), Johnson’s friend and mentor, may help Johnson on this difficult matter, there are also other political factions to be maneuvered with equal caution. The liberal faction of the Democratic Party represented by Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) is not very pleased to hear that they may have to compromise more, and neither are many civil rights movement leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. (Anthony Mackie), who has been as frustrated as his colleagues although he understands well how difficult it is to get things done in Washington D.C. even for the US president.
How Johnson handles his complicated political circumstance is not so far from what was shown in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012). Through his wily tactics equipped with slick charm and forceful attitude, he manages to secure enough votes for the Civil Rights Act to get passed at the US Congress, and he also makes sure that King and other civil rights activists are satisfied enough to guarantee their continuing support to the Democratic Party, though a certain crucial part of the Civil Rights Act has to be removed as the unavoidable price for attaining their common goal.
As Johnson shifts his focus onto re-election, the American society continues to go through its bumpy period. Three civil rights activists are gone missing in Mississippi, and then their bodies are found not long after Johnson has this infamous case investigated by FBI. When he receives a rather uncertain military report from the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson has to make a quick decision to maintain his political status, and we all know that this will come to tarnish his public image several years later.
While the movie betrays its theatrical origin especially when Johnson expresses his thoughts and feelings directly to us, the adapted screenplay by Robert Schenkkan, who also wrote the original stage play, provides many juicy scenes to be enhanced further by Cranston. Johnson’s difficult political situations bring not only the best and but also the worst out of him, and Cranston’s colorful and complex human portrayal of his character is tour-de-force in every nuance and gesture. Johnson can be casual and charming, but he can also be harsh and irascible even to his own people, who often have to tolerate that a lot as working under him. Constantly balancing himself between pragmatism and idealism, Johnson can be very ruthless if that looks necessary to him, and that is exemplified well by when he blatantly steers the attention of media away from civil rights activists protesting against the exclusion of their voice from the 1964 Democratic National Convention. He surely understands their position, but the unity of his party comes first in his view, and he pushes his position aggressively without any hesitation.
Cranston is surrounded by the dependable supporting cast consisting of many recognizable performers. While Frank Langella brings quiet class and dignity to his character, Bradley Whitford has a humorous scene when Johnson suggests to Humphrey an offer any ambitious politician cannot refuse, and Stephen Root is deliciously slimy as J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary but equally notorious director of FBI who was far more interested in King’s extramarital affairs than civil rights. As Johnson’s longtime top aide Walter Jenkins, Todd Weeks holds his own small place besides Cranston, and Melissa Leo exudes a whiff of gentle warmness as Lady Bird Johnson. Although his performance is automatically compared to David Oyelowo’s in “Selma” (2014), Anthony Mackie is effective in his supporting role, and his last scene may make you want to revisit “Selma”, which focuses on another moment of struggle and progress after the Civil Rights Act and Johnson’s re-election.
While he is mainly known for his major comedy films including “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997) and “Meet the Parents” (2000), the director Jay Roach, who previously collaborated with Cranston in “Trumbo”, has moved into a more serious area with his acclaimed HBO TV movies “Recount” (2008) and “Game Change” (2012). Like these two political drama movies, “All the Way” aired in US when the American society was bracing itself for its presidential election, and it wants to remind American people of the importance of their upcoming political event, as looking into one of the most dynamic points in the modern American history. Will their nation survive its another perilous and unpredictable social/political upheaval? We will soon see whether they shall overcome.