'All the Way': TV Review

Bryan Cranston All the Way Still - H 2016
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO
The prosthetics almost steal the show.

HBO's LBJ telefilm, directed by Jay Roach, boasts a great Bryan Cranston performance but is hampered by an unfocused second half.

As expected, a single achievement dominates All the Way, HBO's screen adaptation of Robert Schenkkan's acclaimed play about the early presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson: the work of make-up designer Bill Corso, who recreates the drooping jowls, dangling earlobes and protruding proboscis that characterized our 36th President.

Bryan Cranston, surely feeling the ache after nearly two years without an Emmy, is also very good in the Jay Roach directed telefilm, and apologies to the Breaking Bad veteran for any part of LBJ's visage that he contributed without Corso's involvement.

All the Way, already bedecked with Tonys after its Broadway run, focuses on the year between LBJ's assumption of the presidency after JFK's assassination and his own election in 1964, an eventful time both for Johnson and the burgeoning Civil Right Movement.

With a hefty running time of 132 minutes, All the Way also is a tale of two halves. 

The film's first hour focuses on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and despite sometimes embellishing and distorting the actual events for no particular reason, it's a fast-moving portrait of legislative brinkmanship, political pragmatism and altruistic ambition. Cranston's LBJ is never more interesting than in his back-and-forth negotiations with Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella), a longtime mentor and father figure, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Antony Mackie), presented here as a lone intermediary for his cause. Schenkkan's script throws around buzzwords like "cloture" and "discharge petition" and "filibuster" with much meaning, but he and Cranston, more interestingly, capture LBJ's many faces, the contradictions of a man who could switch from obsequious toadie to chummy good ol' boy to ruthlessly efficient political operator with ease. Schenkkan couches the debate in both the specific arguments of the moment, but also in the familiar vernacular of any attempts to hold onto prejudice and bigotry, such that the Southern politicians of 1964 sound shockingly like the 2016 counterparts.

In its second hour, though, All the Way becomes an underexamined Wikipedia entry, with barely even a superficial interest in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, J. Edgar Hoover's (Stephen Root) obsession with MLK, a sex scandal involving one of his aides and key election events like the notorious Daisy ad. It isn't just sloppy and lacking the narrative/thematic/character spine that the Civil Rights Act provided. It's also verging on insulting in its slapdash treatment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, in which a slew of important civil rights leaders with disparate agendas are reduced largely to their proximity to King, and he is reduced largely to his proximity to Johnson. Aisha Hinds is so vivid and vital in her three minutes as MFDP co-founder Fannie Lou Hamer that it becomes instantly frustrating that this fierce, passionate woman is just a footnote in the rambling second half of one year of somebody else's story. In this format, Schenkkan struggles to explain why the MFDP was important or to make real characters of figures like Stokely Carmichael (Mo McRae), Bob Moses (Marque Richardson) or Roy Wilkins (Joe Morton). Even King, played with authority and soul but little opportunity for depth by Mackie, is only second-billed here by virtue of his name and gains little from Schenkkan shoehorning him into circumstances in which he played only a partial role. Maybe this movie will cause some viewers to look up David Dennis and his eulogy at James Chaney's memorial if only to raise questions about why it was depicted in the manner shown here.

All the Way has the feeling of a one-man show that happens to have had other characters grafted into it so that Johnson has somebody to pontificate to, not that he really needs other characters with added voiceover and his tendency to monologue. Roach's direction strains to include White House walk-and-talks and LBJ Ranch driving sequences to relieve the parlor drama confines of scope and, with Bradley Whitford as a stammering, questionably effectual Hubert Humphrey, to add West Wing shadings. 

Transferred from the stage, Cranston's performance remains outsized, but probably proportionate to Johnson himself. This is, after all, a man whose idea of being presidential included instructions like "Not too tight in the bunghole and leave me some slack for my nutsack" to his tailor. Boasting a thick Texas accent that's consistent if not a perfect echo of LBJ's twang, Cranston uses posture and mannerisms and high-hitched pants to compensate for not equaling Johnson in height or girth. Roach's camerawork helps Cranston loom over his rivals and Corso's seamless makeup is integral to letting the performance bear close-ups, but the actor nails the consummate politician's internal conflicts as much as they can be nailed in a TV movie. Melissa Leo, as a strong-yet-put-upon Lady Bird, and Langella, perfect as the erudite, genteel, bigoted Russell, are Cranston's best foils.

As frequently happens with HBO movies, the quality of the assembled supporting cast exceeds the breadth of available time for their characters. Just as Hinds made me yearn for a Fannie Lou Hamer TV movie, Ray Wise, Toby Huss and Ken Jenkins make impressions in their brief windows.

At four mammoth biographical volumes and counting, Robert A. Caro is still laboring to make sense of LBJ's striving personality, with its soaring aspirations and crippling failings, so it's no wonder that Schenkkan and Roach have their difficulties as well. Especially in its laundry-listing second half, All the Way is practically admitting to its limitations, but as a reminder of the timelessness of partisan rancor and the bumpy path to social progress, a showcase reel for Corso's putty and prosthetic artistry and a permanent memorializing of Cranston's justifiably decorated performance, it has great value.

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo, Bradley Whitford, Frank Langella
Writer: Robert Schenkkan
Director: Jay Roach

Airs: Saturday, May 21, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)