All the Way premieres Sunday, May 21 at 8/7CT on HBO.
Forty-seven years after he left the White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson is having something of a renaissance.
Most of us know “LBJ” as the droning, jowly Texan who became president when Lee Harvey Oswald trained his gun on John F. Kennedy and quashed America’s Camelot dreams. What you recall from there (if you recall a single thing) depends on your age, your race, your geography … maybe your family ties. But not a day goes by that you aren’t affected by Johnson’s policies, the social-minded core of which is ground zero for the mudslinging war games of this year’s presidential race. So much so that his 1964 campaign ads are making the viral rounds and sounding oddly timely.
“Very few people remember Lyndon Johnson for his accomplishments,” says Bryan Cranston, whose ingenious portrayal of Johnson in Broadway’s All the Way earned him and the play much-deserved Tony Awards. “What they remember him for are the tragedy and his disappointments and, mainly, Vietnam. What All the Way highlighted is the extensive domestic achievement that he was able to develop in the five years that he was president.”
Cranston says that dichotomy — coupled with the fact that Johnson was one hell of a rip-roaring guy — made the opportunity to step into the 36th president’s shoes irresistible. So irresistible that, when Way ended its Broadway run, Cranston teamed up with playwright Robert Schenkkan, director Jay Roach and co-executive producer Steven Spielberg to expand All the Way into a riveting, star-packed HBO film.
To shade his character, Cranston spent time with veteran journalist (and Johnson’s former press secretary) Bill Moyers. “Bill told me, ‘Lyndon Johnson is 11 of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life,’” Cranston recalls warmly. “No one adjective is sufficient. He is all those things: a raconteur, a good old boy, a @#$%kicker, a joke teller, a friendly guy, an ice-cold guy, a mean-spirited guy, a domineering force, a graceful man. And the more I started reading about that, the more fascinated I was with him.”
Yes, All the Way features well-known Johnson traits and moments — the tugged beagle ears, the penchant for obscenities and epithets, the colorful instructions for a Haggar company tailor, the infamous “Daisy” ad. But its — and Cranston’s — real achievement is embracing Johnson’s peerless skills as a politician.
Though he himself was hobbled by insecurities rooted in his mother’s mercurial moods, that psychological minefield also left Johnson a masterful social scientist with an uncanny ability to read people and mine their egos and tender spots to get what he wanted. He took just 11 months to expand Kennedy’s New Frontier dreams into his own Great Society legislation, knowing it was all the time he had to convince America to go “all the way with LBJ” in the ’64 election.
“If you look at what he accomplished — civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid, fair housing, education and consumer protection — all of those things that we are still arguing about in 2016, he started in 1964,” Schenkkan says of his inspiration for the story.
The film also reveals that Johnson was no political opportunist. He deeply understood the need for racial equality, thanks to his first job — teaching first grade in a classroom filled with eager Mexican immigrant children. “There would come a day for every one of them that I would see the light in their eyes die,” Johnson tells reporters in one pointed scene, “because they had discovered that the world hated them, just because of the color of their skin. If a president can’t do what he knows is right, then what is the presidency for?”
“I don’t think, without that experience, he would’ve gone to the mat and risked his presidency and his legacy over the Civil Rights Act in 1964,” says Cranston. “If Kennedy had not been killed, there would not have been such a significant civil rights act — I’m convinced of it. Historians that I’ve talked to are convinced of that. Kennedy may have been able to push forward a program, but I haven’t found one historian who says it would have been as strong as what Johnson was able to push forward. That landmark legislation was able to turn the tide in this country and end the Jim Crow laws.”
To make it so, Johnson perfected a dazzling persuasive tactic known as “the Johnson treatment” — a skill All the Way mines for comic and dramatic gold. And one that proved particularly useful with a pair of powerful men on opposite sides of the political spectrum — civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (an elegant Anthony Mackie) and Johnson’s political mentor, Georgia Sen. Richard Russell (Frank Langella, a quiet storm).
Russell — whom the Johnson family called Uncle Dick — was among the Southern segregationist Democrats known as Dixiecrats. In the film, the men label the passage of civil rights legislation “the gravest possible assault on the U.S. Constitution,” though Russell worries his peers’ shameless bluster invites them to be dismissed as “a bunch of redneck goons.” But with the White House at stake, Russell prods Johnson to choose party loyalty over personal conviction, then forces the president’s hand, sending Johnson into a whirlwind of political gamesmanship that is the heart of All the Way. “This ain’t about the Constitution — it’s about those who got more wanting to hang onto it at the expense of those who got nothing. And feel good about it,” Johnson tells his patient missus, Lady Bird (a lovely, understated Melissa Leo).
Johnson’s interactions with King are equally intriguing. Each man openly distrusts the other, but they clearly grasp the shared task at hand, that each operates in multiple worlds and that oftentimes baby steps would have to do to end the injustice around them. Even when it appeared to Johnson’s party faithful and King’s fellow civil rights leaders that they were betraying them. “The Voting Rights Act of ’65 was the crown jewel,” Cranston explains. “Johnson knew it could not be part of the Civil Rights Act. Because everybody knew once that happens, once [African-Americans] had this unfettered path to voting, there would be a seismic shift in politics — and he was right.
“With growth, there’s pain,” Cranston reflects. “You can’t have one without the other. Some people put it that in order to have a breakthrough you have to have a breakdown. Our society during the ’60s broke down and it had to be rebuilt with a stronger foundation. I believe that’s what happened. So we shouldn’t be too alarmed by a societal breakdown, because it creates opportunity. We haven’t seen an election like  ever, really. We’ve had the outsider from time to time, but never such oppression and narcissism and chest-beating. It’s like, oh my God! We’ve regressed! But I choose to remain hopeful.
“I’m on my own little crusade to try to ease that up,” Cranston continues. “All the vitriol that we see in this current political climate — all the name-calling, the finger-pointing, the schoolyard bullying — it’s just ugly and it’s not efficient. It’s so personal and there’s no substance to it. So what I hope, when I talk to people about the ‘Johnson feeling’ and the ‘Johnson treatment’ is that [people understand] just because someone has a different opinion than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. They truly believe that this is the best way to help the country or their city or their county or whatever the case may be. It’s just different from yours. Turning your back and stomping your feet and walking off and unknowingness is ignorance. And when you’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods and quality of life, ignorance is not bliss. It’s dangerous.
“So when I talk to someone who has an opposing view, that’s one of the first things I say to them. I say, ‘We may disagree on some things, but I truly feel that you really want what’s best.’ … That, in itself, is the beginning of a proper exchange. Start with just you and someone else, and hopefully that sentiment can grow so that we can actually have some civility in our world.”
Call it the Cranston treatment.
All the Way premieres Sunday, May 21 at 8/7CT on HBO.