All The Way
Dir. Jay Roach
From its opening scene, All the Way lets its audience know that the country is in a frightening period, and that the stakes are high for the president that must succeed John F. Kennedy. With an ominous speech about a dream Johnson has about hiding from a Native American war party—given as he takes the mantle of President—accentuating the opening, this is a biopic that sets a tone of dread from the very beginning, but also one that never quite delves into a kind of Fincherian, House of Cards brand of moral nihilism.
The film's primary narrative focus is on Johnson's efforts to get Kennedy's Civil Rights bill through Congress. By collaborating—and sometimes politically sabotaging—such political giants as Martin Luther King Jr, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard "Uncle Dick" Russell, he slithers his bill forward, and ever so often his career as an interim President is threatened. The most significant turning point of his presidency is obviously the beginning of the Vietnam War. All the Way portrays Johnson's reason for starting the conflict as an attempt to show masculinity and bravado, and is just one of many events in the film (and, indeed, his presidency) that are all shown without ever painting him as a clear protagonist or antagonist—rather, he simply does, and simply is. In one scene he brags about the size of his unmentionables, and the next he speaks about teaching young African American children; the film perpetuates this skillful ethical balancing act until the barometer of sympathy is left solely on the viewer to measure.
It's obvious that, per marketing, main draw of the film lies within the acting performances, particularly Bryan Cranston's portrayal as the president in question. Cranston won a Tony Award for playing the same role in the Broadway play that this film is based on, and one can imagine that he'll most likely win an Emmy for this portrayal. However, the film is packed to the brim with equally skillful performances from the rest of the ensemble, as well. This is not a one-man show. The rest of the cast all do well providing believable stress for Johnson, even when he is at his most confident. Each of them has something to say about not only the civil rights issues that Johnson must overcome, but also about the Vietnam War and the status of Democrats and Republicans, especially those in the South.
The tone of the film, while serious, isn't one that lacks sympathy. Even though Cranston's Johnson doesn't quite delve into villain status, he certainly doesn't isn't heroic. Johnson's primary goal in putting the Civil Rights Bill into effect is a selfish one: by finishing JFK's work, he hopes to have a good shot at winning his election and being chosen as president rather than being an "accidental president." He finds himself ultimately pining for the fjords of a legitimate, elected term. Indeed, in the many scenes in which Johnson proclaims his reasons for passing the bill and enacting the other motions he puts through Congress, he always states that he has something to prove to the American people: that he can live up to JFK's legacy and provide good, worthy change to the American political system.
Whether or not the public think Johnson is moral, perhaps that is how the American people will remember him: as an uncompromising enacter of change and progress in American social reform. Despite remaining politically charged in his reasoning, he is still responsible for passing the Civil Rights Bill against immense opposition, and his motions changed the political landscape of the country for decades to come. It's good that we have films like All the Way, and phenomenal actors like Bryan Cranston, to help remind us of the man and of the history the American people have left behind.