In “LBJ,” Woody Harrelson gives as good a performance as you can expect from an actor who appears to have someone else’s buttocks attached to his chin.
The movie, a historical biopic, concerns the ascendancy of Lyndon Baines Johnson to first the vice presidency and then the presidency of the United States. It’s an entertaining piece of Hollywood waxworks if you don’t set your expectations very high and it’s probably the best movie Rob Reiner has directed in more than a decade. (This only sounds like a compliment.)
In their efforts to make over the strapping Harrelson into the aging plug-ugly Texas politician, though, the make-up technicians have buried the actor under a bushel of prosthetics, wattles, and liver-spots. It’s very nearly a freak-show, or would be for a performer of less swagger.
Luckily, Harrelson dominates the movie as Johnson dominated every room he walked into. Ornery, foul-mouthed, and funny, he alone saves “LBJ” from seeming as dull as Marc Shaiman’s ersatz-Copland score. The script, by first-time screenwriter Joey Hartstone, uses the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, as a dramatic pivot point, flashing back a few years to the start of the 1960 presidential race and then forging ahead into the early days of LBJ’s administration.
The overarching theme is a good one: a born politician, canny pragmatist, and Senate majority leader — a man whose career was naturally leading to the White House — is forced to accept a position of supreme powerlessness as vice president. Ironically, he only ascends to the presidency through the death of the handsome, idealistic JFK, knowing he’ll never be as loved or admired even if he’s better suited to the job.
And Harrelson is alive to the drama of a backroom powerhouse neutered in the public square. Once his Johnson accepts the offer to be JFK’s running mate, the man who made fellow senators quail when called finds himself overseeing minor committees and unable to break through Bobby Kennedy’s protective cordon to reach the president. The star’s eyes burn with frustration and, knowing past Harrelson performances as we do, we wait for the explosion to come.
Instead, we get tragedy and the sight of a man stepping into another person’s shoes with regret. Jeffrey Donovan is surprisingly convincing as JFK and Michael Stahl-David makes RFK into a terrier-like rival to Johnson, sure that the wily Texas Democrat will torpedo the civil rights bill as soon as he gets the chance. The interactions between Johnson and the untested Kennedy circle, and between Johnson and members of the racist Southern caucus like Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins, oozing folksy venom), are ripe with strategizing and horse-trading. As potted history goes, “LBJ” is an easy watch, but the 2016 HBO film “All the Way,” with Bryan Cranston re-creating his Tony-winning Broadway performance as Johnson, remains the better movie.
In fact, the subject might still make a terrific TV series if someone can ever get the rights to Robert Caro’s monumental biography of the 36th president (and if Caro ever finishes writing it). An LBJ biopic needs to be as big as the man himself, but the tight 98-minute running time of “LBJ” does no favors to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s underused Lady Bird Johnson, and it ultimately whittles a fascinating and flawed public figure down into a simplified hero of history.
At its best, “LBJ” is a reminder of what competence in governance looks like, and there are plenty worse reasons to recommend it right now. But you can imagine what Johnson himself might say about this movie, and you certainly can’t print it.
Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by Joey Hartstone. Starring Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Jenkins. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs. 98 minutes. R (language that would burn a dug-in tick off a back-porch hound dog).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.