HBO’s new All The Way film which premiered last week is a look at one of the most important periods of Presidential leadership – the first year of Lyndon Johnson’s time in the White House and his complicated relationships with Martin Luther King Jr., Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, J. Edgar Hoover and his wife Lady Bird Johnson. The film is based on a Tony-award winning play written by Robert Schenkkan. The movie directed by Jay Roach comes fifteen years after Path to War, another HBO movie which chronicled the Johnson Administration. That film which centered around the disputes within LBJ’s team about Vietnam and passage of the Voting Rights Act is essentially a historical sequel to this film even though it was made 15 years earlier. That movie which runs occasionally on HBO and is available on DVD (I actually picked up my copy many years ago in Thomasville, Georgia of all places!) is highly recommended for viewing AFTER this film.
We’ve covered the first year of LBJ’s Presidency previously on TFS via book reviews and it’s a period I have studied extensively, particularly the legislative battles of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Studies of LBJ often have an excessive emphasis on the President’s paranoia about Robert Kennedy. RFK paranoia plays into the film but wisely isn’t the overarching theme of the work which in itself makes All The Way more credible with me. In addition, it shows King as a principled but politically savvy operator who could compromise, something that is not always portrayed in films. The attitudes of Southern Democrats are well-portrayed in the film and the struggles between the liberal and conservative wings of the party are demonstrated. The President’s decision to court Republicans to get Civil Rights over the top because of Democratic opposition is played out on film as it happened in 1964.
The Congressional debate over the Civil Rights Act is well portrayed with Richard Russell (played by Frank Langella who always seems to pop up in political-themed TV shows or movies) Howard Smith, James Eastland and William Fulbright beyond portrayed almost perfectly based on my personal reading of history. Much of my knowledge of the debate over Civil Rights comes from Robert Mann’s book When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954–1968 and I would not be surprised if that book was used as source material for Schenkkan and his team.
The film portrays an LBJ whose paranoia and anger often get the best of him, but a man whose legislative tactics were responsible for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Hubert Humphrey and J. Edgar Hoover are also well-portrayed in the film. Hoover is shown to be petty but equally paranoid as LBJ.
When it comes to the 1964 Democratic Convention and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party the battle over seating either the MFDP or the all-white segregationist delegation from the same state takes up a lot of time in the film – as it should. The film then takes us through the 1964 General Election campaign including the infamous “daisy commercial,” which only ran once.
A side plot of the film is the relationship between LBJ and his aide Walter Jenkins. When Walter Jenkins was arrested for a homosexual act in a men’s room in October 1964, LBJ distanced himself from his longtime aide and central figure in the year one of his Presidency. But Lady Bird Johnson made a statement of support for Jenkins, something portrayed in the film.
I could go on and on about subplots in the film, but that might encourage folks to not see the movie.
For any political junkie, or history nut this is a must watch film. Anyone who has HBO will find the film playing regularly – perusing the program guide it is on no less than five times the rest of this week.