Thursday, 7 July 2016

All The Way (2016)

Bryan Cranston is virtually unrecognisable here as Lyndon B. Johnson, bringing his Tony Award-winning performance of the president to television in Robert Schenkkan's own adaptation of the his hit Broadway play.

All The Way focuses on the first year in office for 'the accidental president', taking us from his swearing in after John F. Kennedy’s assassination through to his 1964 campaign for election to a full term.

The first half of the film tells of the struggles to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. LBJ proved himself a master at political horse-trading, wheeler-dealing with the likes of senators Hubert H. Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) and Richard B. Russell Jr. (Frank Langella); FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root) and of course the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie). All The Way does not shirk from the responsibilities of dramatising this significant moment in US history and mixes incendiary archive footage - specifically the example of the baiting oratory style of George Wallace - to remind us that, in a world of Brexit, talk of barring Muslims from entry into the US and building a wall between Texas and Mexico, we may not have come as far in the world as we'd like to think.

LBJ was a deeply divisive and difficult figure and Cranston depicts the complexities with aplomb. Nevertheless, it could be argued that paranoia is the one trait all holders of high office possess and this too is explored in the second half of the film which focuses on his presidential campaign in '64, when he feared the likes of opponent Barry Goldwater, and a potential challenge from the brother of the man he replaced, Robert F. Kennedy. 

It's a very worthy film, but rather overlong and a little dull. It's also a touch too familiar to fully engage. All The Way resides in the shadows of not only Selma, the 2014 film that was criminally ignored by the Academy, which told the same events from MLK's perspective and boasted a fine performance from David Oyelowo that Anthony Mackie here unsurprisingly fails to match, but also other HBO fare such as Game Change and Recount, which were also helmed by the director of All The Way, Jay Roach, as well as biopics from Oliver Stone and TV programmes like The West Wing and the US remake of House of Cards. It follows the similar formulaic and identikit path that all of these take, depicting the crises and political powerplays that face our central characters and delighting in the dynamite, curt exchanges that take place away from the public eye. But perhaps the biggest, most unforgiveable disappointment of All The Way is how little it offers its secondary characters, and in this case it is tragically its female characters. Melissa Leo is utterly wasted as Lady Bird Johnson in a film which barely represents the opposite sex.

Nevertheless, All the Way remains a solid enough recreation of the pivotal events that occurred 50 odd years ago that is lifted by Cranston's assured lead performance.

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