“In short, this is no time for delay. It is a time for action.”
— Lyndon Johnson, to a Joint Session of Congress, Nov. 27, 1963
Moving from the stage to the small screen, Bryan Cranston’s revered portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson takes to HBO for the film adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way. Telling the story of Johnson’s trials in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, All the Way shows, in detail, the often bitter struggle of progress in politics, particularly at the height of the tumultuous ’60s. In illustrating one of the country’s most riotous decades, All the Way‘s lessons in political and cultural history resonant in these times, as well.
All the Way begins in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963, and after Lyndon Johnson has famously taken the oath of Presidency aboard Air Force One. Arriving in Washington on 27 November, Johnson addresses both houses of Congress in a Joint Session: “All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.”
It’s a statement that speaks for Johnson’s experience throughout the following year as he seeks reelection. Johnson finds himself thrown into the legacy of John F. Kennedy, especially the prized Civil Rights Bill. Johnson vows to have the Bill passed, and urges Congress to assist him in doing so. Of course, this proves easier said than done, as Johnson has many more opponents at his feet than supporters, and even his supporters are only so up to a point.
All the Way effectively captures an era that many couldn’t imagine today: a time when many Democrats could be vehemently conservative, and Republicans could be liberal, prior to the major political upheaval of the ‘80s when the conservative-liberal balance shifted among the parties and began forming the arrangement Americans recognize today. This leads to startling scenes of Southern Democrats calling blacks “niggers” and fighting amongst themselves about what rights to give them. It’s a time of extensive compromise, debts, and sacrifice among leaders, constituents, and delegates, slowing social progress to a staggering grind for the purposes of staying in favor with one’s party, even at the expense of what’s right.
Johnson’s forced to call in favors and make promises to his own Democratic constituents to pass the bill, many of whom won’t agree to basic concessions such as shared public spaces or employment opportunities for non-white Americans. Primary among the requests is the removal of the Voting Rights Act, the crux of the bill. Regrettably, Johnson agrees to the concession.
“Nothing comes free in this world,” he says to himself in the Oval Office, looking over the Civil Rights Bill. “Not even good. Especially not good.”
“And the carpenter picks up his saw,” he continues, brandishing himself a builder of a new era. “And if wood could speak, it would scream.”
At Johnson’s side are Liberal Democratic Senate Leader and future VP, Hubert Humphrey, as well as Martin Luther King Jr., played by Bradley Whitford and Anthony Mackie, respectively. Both are horrified at Johnson’s butchering of the Civil Rights Bill, even if Johnson knows it’s the only way to move it forward, and the only way he can secure his place in the White House and subsequently pass the Voting Rights Bill.
The dichotomy between party loyalty and social justice is best personified in Johnson’s personal relationship with his mentor Richard Russell (played by Frank Langella), a Democratic Senator from Georgia and leader of the southern conservative coalition. Russell opposes the bill, given the row it’s causing among the conservative Democrats in the south. Despite the familial bond between the two men, Johnson will not be moved. A poignant dinner scene at the White House shows the two men literally in each other’s faces.
“I love you more than my own Daddy,” Johnson says. “But if you get in my way, I’ll crush you.”
Yet, even once the Civil Rights Bill is passed, Johnson is dismayed at the rupture he’s caused within his party, and the hurt he’s caused Russell. When Humphrey attempts to congratulate him on his momentous achievement, Johnson simply scoffs.
“The Democratic Party has just lost the south for the rest of my lifetime,” he says. “And maybe yours. What the fuck are you so happy about?”
Cranston’s transformative performance serves as a satisfying counterpoint to Johnson’s prior film depiction in 2014’s Selma, in which Tom Wilkinson portrayed a much more frustrated, difficult, and cynical man. While Cranston’s Johnson is certainly conflicted and by no means a saint, demonstrating his own temper between snapping at his wife and firing secretaries on a whim, he does show a sincerely compassionate side, one that carries him through the bickering, strife, and ass-kissing of his political world. This is a Johnson who’s not politically correct, throwing the words “wetback” and “dago” around freely, yet is adamant about the rights of each demographic behind those slurs.
One such instance of this compassion comes after the formation of a filibuster from Russell and the conservative Democrats to block the Civil Rights Bill. As the filibuster reaches into its third month, Johnson comes out to the press to explain his dedication to the bill. He tells of his first job out of college: teaching the children of Mexican immigrants as a first grade teacher in Texas.
God, did I love those kids of mine. They would show up every morning, dirty, ragged, and hungry ’cause most of them hadn’t had breakfast. But they were so on fire to learn, it just made you feel good. But there would come a day for each and every one of them when I would see the light in their eyes die. They had discovered the world hated them, just because of the color of their skin. If a president can’t do what he knows is right, then what is the presidency good for?
At the same time, Cranston plays a Johnson who understands the game of politics: where niceties and manners often need be thrown out the window in pushing for a greater good, where a decent man often need act brashly, forcefully and even cruelly, to achieve his goals. All the Way takes a sympathetic, if not appraising, look at Johnson as a man trying to do the right thing within a belligerent system that won’t let him, and which presses him to take any measures he can, even betraying his friends and allies, to get it done.
Cranston’s Johnson is a man who demonstrates a firm dedication to civil rights, while struggling with the often complete thanklessness of his efforts on all sides. By the film’s third act, despite all his efforts towards the bill, Johnson finds himself receiving flack from both his enemies and his allies. While he’s curled up in bed, his wife Lady Bird (played by Melissa Leo) consoles him as he throws a veritable tantrum at his country, declaring, “you’re all against me”.
Johnson’s a man seeking progress and approval, learning that as President he’s incapable of gaining both, as that progress requires small compromises for everyone to the satisfaction of no one. Liberals feel he’s moving too slow, while conservatives are determined he’s moving too quickly. It’s the price paid by a man thrown into the grandest of spotlights with all the world watching, wondering how he’ll follow their favorite son. Whether on TV or on Broadway, All the Way is about a man on a stage.
All the Way is also a sobering lesson in the kinds of arguments and debates used against the Civil Rights movement that continue to show themselves today in the ongoing LGBT rights debate: anti-federalism and fear of state overreach, the stressing of party unity, and adamancy for the rights of business owners. Then as now, many of those preaching these arguments do so to hide much simpler motives: bigotry and fear. Many of the arguments thrown out against the Civil Rights Bill during sessions of Congress should resonate with anyone frustrated by the modern efforts to desist LGBT rights, or even the continued rights campaigns of non-white Americans.
The film even contains an address on the infringing era of gay rights in the coming decades, as Johnson’s shocked to learn his closest aide, Walter Jenkins (Todd Weeks), has been arrested for a sexual encounter with another man in a bathroom in Washington, DC. In the heat of the campaign, Johnson’s primary concern is how Walter’s acts will hurt him.
The film’s end shows Johnson celebrating his win in the presidential race. Even amidst his victory, and surrounded by supporters, inside he bears the same cynicism towards them all:
Because this is how new things are born. Bird and I lost three children before we had Linda, and I remember when they let me into the room to see my first live child. And there on the floor you could still see the Doctor’s footprints in my wife’s blood. But the sun will come up and the knives will come out. And all these smiling faces will be watching me, waiting for that first sign of weakness, and then they will gut me like a deer.
All the Way is a firm lesson in the price and struggle of progress in American democracy, and the perhaps impossibility of a “nice guy” president. It’s also an illustration of both how much and how little has changed in 50 years. While some of the magic of the stage show may have been lost in the transition to film (e.g., Johnson’s monologues feel less potent as voiceovers), the man at the center of the story is as presential as ever, transported via gorgeous sets to the era that defined him. With stellar supporting roles by Langella, Mackie, Leo, and Whitford, the political and social drama that was the post-Kennedy era comes to vivid, excruciating life.
All the Way is available on HBO Go and HBO Now.