Cranston Plays LBJ ‘All the Way’ to the Back Row

All the Way film

HBO’s All the Way earns respect but not adoration

This being an election year, anything relating to politics will get attention this television season. With HBO’s adaptation of All the Way, the network transfers the Tony Award-winning play, bringing TV titan Bryan Cranston along for the ride. While handsomely produced and well-acted, this adaptation feels a bit like a high school drama you were forced to watch in history class.

Lyndon B. Johnson took office after President Kennedy was shot in November 1963. The quiet, smooth opening shot shows us the bloody backseat of JFK’s Lincoln convertible, and we are thrown into the chaos of Johnson taking office. Johnson is determined to honor Kennedy’s legacy by passing the Civil Rights Act, and he is being pressured on both sides by both Martin Luther King Jr. (Captain America: Civil War‘s Anthony Mackie) and Senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella).

This is a television movie filled to the brim of men in dark suits in superbly designed offices. It’s as if HBO finally found the budget to go back in time and film sequences in the 1960s. Parts of the script, however, seem to only point out that we aren’t on a stage anymore. This is a painful time in American history, and the themes resonate with the headlines of today (particularly the in-fighting at and leading up to the Democratic convention). When playwright Robert Shenkkan’s script allows for some emotion, it can hit hard (the deposition by Fanny Lou Hamer – Aisha Hinds – later in the film is a highlight).

Cranston won a Tony Award for originating the role of Johnson on Broadway, and his performance reaches for the back row. Is it too much? In some scenes, yes, but his quieter moments are effective. All the Way doesn’t paint Johnson as a saint, and Cranston allows him to be loud, broad, and mean when the script allows. Still, something feels obligatory about the performance and the production, making it ultimately fall flat — as if they were banking on Cranston’s powerhouse performance to carry the entire film. Plus, Ava DuVernay’s Selma travels the same territory to much greater effect, making All the Way play like a weaker B-side to that great work.

Melissa Leo, as Lady Bird Johnson, isn’t given much to do, and she feels wasted in the role of Johnson’s supportive wife. Anthony Mackie, unfortunately, lives in the shadow of David Oyelowo’s magnificent rendering of Dr. King Selma. They should have saved some money in the makeup department (the prosthetics are insane in All the Way) to transform him a bit more.

The efforts from this huge cast should not go unnoticed. Cranston will be lauded for his immersive portrayal of a president stuck between appeasing his fellow politicians and effectively changing history. But in a year full of stellar limited series and television movies, All the Way falls a bit short. I can respect it for its efforts, but I don’t like it.

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