Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
If you told 20-year-old Rob Reiner that he would someday direct a movie about President Lyndon Johnson, he wouldn’t have believed it.
“The only thing I knew about LBJ was that he was my enemy,” says Reiner, who became eligible for the draft in 1965. “I didn’t like him because I was against the Vietnam War and I was frightened he was going to send me to my death.”
So how is it that Reiner, whose directing credits include “When Harry Met Sally” and the Oscar-nominated “A Few Good Men,” has made “LBJ,” a mostly flattering film about the 36th president starring Woody Harrelson?
Simple: He changed his mind.
Reiner says his own experience in politics — he’s been active in various liberal causes in California over the past three decades — has made him appreciate Johnson’s political acumen and what he managed to get done at a particularly divisive time in the country’s history.
“Look at what he got accomplished domestically. It’s unparalleled except for maybe [Franklin Roosevelt],” says Reiner. “It’s actually heroic.”
“LBJ,” which opens Friday, is by no means a comprehensive biopic. If writer Robert Caro hasn’t been able to tell Johnson’s whole story in his (so far) four-volume “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” there wasn’t much chance that Reiner could do it in 98 minutes.
So he didn’t try. Instead, Reiner’s film is narrowly focused on the period between President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963 and Johnson’s speech less than a week later to a Joint Session of Congress promoting passage of Kennedy’s landmark Civil Rights Act.
Deliberately — and notably — the Vietnam War is barely mentioned in “LBJ.” At one point in the film, Johnson tells his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: “My thoughts about Vietnam are I don’t want to think about Vietnam.” And that goes for the filmmaker, too.
“We know what happened in Vietnam and how it turned out,” says Reiner, sounding like an older, wiser Michael “Meathead” Stivic, the antiwar character he played on the 1970s sitcom “All in the Family.”
The director spoke about the new film during a recent visit to Cambridge. Prior to a screening of “LBJ” at the Brattle Theatre, Reiner, Harrelson, and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a friend of Reiner’s and a onetime Johnson aide, sat down in a suite at the Charles Hotel to talk about the movie.
Harrelson, who’s perhaps best known for his role on the ’80s TV show “Cheers” and for his Oscar-nominated performance in “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” said he, like Reiner, was ambivalent about Johnson and had resisted an earlier overture to play his fellow Texan on the big screen.
“Johnson’s fairly beloved in Texas, but I have a hard time with Vietnam, as many people do,” said Harrelson, who at 56 is a year older than Johnson was when he became president. “I said I couldn’t play LBJ because I don’t respect him.”
But the opportunity to work with Reiner, whom Harrelson calls “one of the greatest visionary filmmakers alive,” prompted him to take the role.
Thanks to a facial prosthesis and makeup by Ve Neill, who won an Academy Award for her work transforming Robin Williams into “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Harrelson does resemble Johnson in the film. And the actor, a native of Midland, Texas, worked hard to get the president’s drawl just right.
“It was very daunting. I was really self-conscious about how Johnson moved and especially how he talked. Even though we’re both from Texas, he’s from the hill country, and they have a very different way of speaking,” Harrelson said. “I was constantly, like, ‘Oh that’s not right.’ But Rob would just tell me to relax.”
“LBJ” is being released at a time when the presidency is very much on the minds of many Americans. But the movie was finished before Donald Trump was elected, so Reiner says it’s not in any way a response to the current brand ofdysfunction in Washington. Still, the director believes it’s instructive to see how a commander in chief considered to be a “tough, bull-in-a-china-shop arm twister” — sound familiar? — was able to work with members of Congress to get things done.
“Johnson was the consummate legislator. He understood in his bones how politics worked,” says Reiner. “We have someone in the White House now who not only doesn’t have a clue, he has no interest in learning.”
Kearns Goodwin, who wrote “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” in 1977, hopes “LBJ” will remind people that politician isn’t a dirty word. She likens Reiner’s film to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which was loosely based on her book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”
“What’s so timely about ‘LBJ,’ and about ‘Lincoln,’ is that they celebrate what it means to be a politician. We’ve lost any respect for political figures because politics has become so lethal,” Kearns Goodwin said. “Just like we need a free press, we need people who revere the idea of being public servants.”
At that, Harrelson guffawed.
“The government needs a colonic,” the actor said. “We need people who care. We’ve got a guy running this country who only cares about himself. Trump is the most narcissistic person.”
Reiner, meanwhile, is sanguine about the political climate in America and whether “LBJ” will resonate with moviegoers.
“I think it speaks for itself. People will watch the movie in light of what’s happening and decide for themselves how a government is supposed to function,” he said. “I do believe the government will function properly again, but it’s going to take a very strong leader with a lot of experience who doesn’t demean the media and the First Amendment.”
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