HBO’s lengthy reappraisal of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency, The Path to War founders on its own contradictions. It attempts to rehabilitate Johnson (Michael Gambon) as a President whose considerable political and social policy achievements have been forever overshadowed by his escalation of the Vietnam War. By focusing on Johnson’s personal struggles to explain how a man with neither instinct nor stomach for colonial escapades came to flounder so deeply in Southeast Asia, the film inevitably, and ironically, skims over Johnson’s considerable domestic policy. It thus recreates the one-dimensional war-mongering, kid-killing figure once emblazoned on the forests of placards that waved over campuses across the US.
On the other hand, Path to War does fully capture the richness (and also the absurdity) of the technological and scientific hubris of the late ’50s and early ’60s, in which any situation, however complex could be reduced to, and solved by, a mathematical equation. Here it is exemplified by the unblinking faith of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin) in the right statistical analysis, rather than the right policy, as the key to victory in Vietnam. And it explores, in unusual depth, the way a single decision can generate its own terrifying momentum and a contradictory, if compelling, Alice-in-Wonderland logic.
Path to War resembles other (relatively) recent filmed histories: HBO’s own exploration of Churchill’s wilderness years during the 1930s, The Gathering Storm, for example, or Oliver Stone’s Nixon. All three make of their central character a caricature, yet all three subtly illuminate a complex cultural milieu and the almost accidental transmutation of contingency into irrevocable and bitter history.
No such ambiguity haunted the opening of Johnson’s elected Presidency, with which The Path to War begins. Swept back into power in 1964 with one of the biggest popular votes of the century, Johnson seemed poised to revolutionize America’s domestic politics, a strength accentuated by the movie’s low shots that let Johnson loom out of the screen. He didn’t reckon, however, with the fears and the determinism of the advisors he had inherited from Kennedy.
These advisors adhered passionately to George Kennan’s Domino Theory (the conviction that if one nation “fell” to Communism, others around the globe would follow). But they also believed that the exercise of human intellect (bound together with what British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, also elected in 1964, called the “white heat of technology”) could solve any geopolitical problem. However, this dazzling group of intellectuals failed to learn from the humiliations heaped on the colonial powers of Europe both the folly and the cost of trying to pit manpower and superior technology against ideological commitment.
In one of his most thoughtful recent performances, Alec Baldwin as McNamara encapsulates this delusion. His chubby, unmarked face, flat eyes, and uninflected delivery reflect the complacent assurance of this former president of the Ford Motor Company, who served both Kennedy and Johnson as Secretary of Defense. Delivering McNamara’s calculations — kill ratios, dead-to-wounded ratios, conventional-to-guerrilla force ratios — and reporting Westmoreland’s estimates of the additional forces he would need to win the war, Baldwin personifies the apparent rationality of the escalating and deadly folie a deux that sought in statistical science an infallible algorithm for victory. Nor does Baldwin miss a beat as, blank-faced in the long run-up to the ’68 election, he uses the same numbers to inform Johnson the war is un-winnable, and which precipitates his own sidelining to the World Bank.
Another strong performance by Donald Sutherland allows Path to War to explore the ethical conundrums that a single decision forces on all who accept it, however reluctantly. As McNamara’s successor and long-time Presidential adviser Clark Clifford, Sutherland abandons his initial fervent opposition to American escalation in Vietnam and advocates with equal decisiveness the ardent pursuit of the war. Turncoat? Perhaps, but he was also a man who, seeing his advice on restraint ignored, took the logical (to him) step of advocating, at whatever cost, the fastest extraction possible from a disaster in the making.
The complex work by Sutherland and Baldwin throws into sharper focus one of the key weaknesses of the film — the performance of British actor Michael Gambon in the role of Lyndon Johnson. One can see the appeal of casting Gambon. His most compelling performances (ranging from Brecht’s Galileo at London’s National Theatre 20 years ago to his charismatic reincarnation of playwright Dennis Potter’s alter ego, Phillip E. Marlow, in The Singing Detective) have been of flawed sensualists, men of extraordinary physical and intellectual power. From time to time Gambon does bring off an uncanny rendition of Johnson’s most characteristic, often photographed look — a hawkish, predatory glare down at an unfortunate interlocutor. Too often, though, Gambon muffs his Texas accent and succeeds only in looking hounded, petulant and pusillanimous.
To be fair, the actor is not always working with a fully developed character. Longeurs flourish in the central section, after Johnson’s reluctance to escalate crumbles and before his re-energized fear of becoming a minor historical footnote between two golden Kennedys drives him to fire McNamara (in the time-honored, irrevocable style of a promotion) and begin negotiations about negotiations about peace.
Throughout this second hour, the script is so sympathetic to Johnson that the writers appear to portray him as a thoughtful man, driven to anguish by the dubious necessity of a colonial war that perverted him, his domestic policies and the Presidential image he had hoped to hone for history. The Johnson who appears on screen, however, looks more like a hounded cur, rampaging uselessly around the White House, and trailed nightly by an ineffectual Lady Bird in an armor-plated perm and fluttering Gothic nightgown. Nowhere in this film does one glimpse the backroom Democratic genius who took only four years to rise from neophyte Senator to Senate Majority Leader, and who gifted the South to JFK in 1960.
Even with these failings, Path to War deserves applause, albeit muted. It captures the heady (and unfounded) political optimism of the country that had successfully faced down its only rival for world leadership, the Soviet Union, four years earlier. It captures the enduring (perhaps the first occasion, but certainly not the last) inability of U.S. politicians and military leaders to understand that the projection of unassailable power and unmatched technology could not guarantee triumph or even avert defeat. Finally, the film captures the last historical moment when Americans both expected moral integrity from their President and believed that individual action could create it.