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The LBJ Library Hosts the Austin Premiere of HBO Film’s All the Way 

The LBJ Library Hosts the Austin Premiere of HBO Film’s All the Way

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Last week, I attended the Texas premiere of the new HBO film, All the Way, a look at the early years of LBJ’s presidency, hosted by Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. Stars Bryan Cranston and Anthony Mackie, director Jay Roach, original playwright Robert Schenkkan, and LBJ biographer and consultant on the film Doris Kearns Goodwin were all in attendance and gave the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the film by participating in a live discussion led by library director Mark K. Updegrove after the screening.

Photo Credit: LBJ Library/Jay Godwin
Photo Credit: LBJ Library/Jay Godwin

Focusing on the first year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, All the Way is an engrossing two-plus hours in the trenches of the complexities of the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and also at times an acute character study of the 36th President of the United States. Written by Schenkkan (and based on his awarding-winning play, also titled All the Way) and directed by Recount and Game Change director Roach, HBO’s most recent foray into political dramas shines in its magnificent performances, boasting a cast with serious acting chops.

Photo Credit: LBJ Library/Jay Godwin
Photo Credit: LBJ Library/Jay Godwin

Cranston is nearly unrecognizable as President Johnson, prosthetic nose, Texas twang, and all. After starring as LBJ in Schenkkan’s play beginning in 2012, Cranston’s experience shows. He’s the driving force of All the Way, bringing to screen just how overwhelming, intense, and demanding President Johnson was while constantly injecting humanity into every scene. In the discussion after the premiere of All the Way at the LBJ Presidential Library, Cranston said he spent a great deal of time at the library researching for the role. It was a letter from Jackie Kennedy to President Johnson five days after her husband’s assassination thanking him for personally writing letters to each of her children that most greatly influences his performance. “It was really the key to unlock the emotional core of who Lyndon Johnson [was for] me,” Cranston said.

“The depth of the compassion that his man had to do what was right…that really then gave me the foundation to then build from there to create LBJ.”

Photo Credit: LBJ Library/Jay Godwin
Photo Credit: LBJ Library/Jay Godwin

Another actor familiar to Broadway, Mackie does a lovely, nuanced job at portraying one of the most iconic figures in American history, Martin Luther King Jr., a leader stuck between the incremental change promised by the government and the immediate revolution desired by his people. Mackie said, “I feel like [Martin Luther King Jr.] is one of the only people in the history of the world where his actions define him much more than the way he looked. I I tried to stay away from the idea of impersonation and capture his essence…because there’s no way of getting it right.”

The tense partnership portrayed by Cranston and Mackie as President Johnson and MLK is a major tenant of All the Way and feels especially poignant in today’s political and racial climate. In many ways, All the Way is as much a history of 2016 as it is a peek at the 1960s. When asked about why he had written the play, All the Way playwright Schenkkan said, “I often think of 1964 and this movie as an origin story for 2016.” Today, factioning is bubbling up in both the Democratic and Republican parties and the battle between pragmatism and revolution is still as present as it was in 1964.

Considering the rich, timely story, sharp filming, and excellent performances, All the Way’s only short-coming is how overstuffed it is. Though clocking in at 128 minutes, it doesn’t have enough time to devote to all the pieces it starts. There isn’t enough of the brilliant Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson, the side plot of the CIA monitoring of Martin Luther King Jr. feels like an afterthought, and the brief mentions of distress in Vietnam are shoehorned in with no time to breathe.

Photo Credit: LBJ Library/Jay Godwin
Photo Credit: LBJ Library/Jay Godwin

But in the end, All the Way succeeds in taking us back in time to tell a story that shows what can happen when the political process is focused on helping people. Roach said, “Good government can do amazing things and LBJ showed us how to do that.”

All the Way premieres Saturday, May 21st at 8/7c on HBO.

Trailer:

Here’s the full Q&A:

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