There has been quite a shift in film making from the big studios to film companies producing blockbusters to HBO. Talking to someone in the industry, it is a question of finance. It can cost a fortune to land a box office star, add in a massive marketing budget and the film company is hoping against hope it does not bomb at the box office. The costs of HBO are far less -$1m to make a pilot-and, as it’s not one of the big three US tv companies, they can be more daring hence the Sopranos.
Last Sunday I watched All The Way HBO’s tv drama about Lyndon Johnson and his trials, tribulations and above all machinations in passing the Civil Rights Bill. I say Sunday, but it took two efforts, one on Sunday night and the next on Monday, to watch it as it was nearly three hours long. Bryan Cranston gave a masterly performance as Johnson. He did not quite have the build, but he got the accent and above all the home spun often vulgar, always sly, socially-committed politician who never wanted the job in the first place. It was an oddity that Southern Democrats had little in common with the liberal Democrats to the north like the Kennedy family and really embodied Republican values. Johnson in passing this legislation disturbed if not destroyed the Dixiecrats alliance. Georgia, for example, voted Republican for the first time in 1964 and every election since. There was great political drama as Johnson trod a path between Martin Luther King on the one hand and Southern senators like Dick Russell and Storm Thormond. To Johnson’s great credit the legislation was passed but his reputation took a battering for the Vietnam War he escalated and in which 55,000 Americans lost their lives.
I would have found it hard to sit though 3 hours in the cinema and therefore taking it two sessions was easier on the bladder and on the mind. The film was devoid of box office stars, sex or special effects. It was a bio-pic but not adulatory one. Taken from the play byKen Schenkkan, and much of the film was therefor static – set in the Oval Office or a hotel suite. The executive director is Stephen Spielberg but there were no set pieces except possibly when Johnson startled Hubert Humphrey by driving a car which was amphibious into a lake on his ranch. We saw the ruthless vulgarian side of Johnson. It was good to see one of the great American actors Frank Langella feature as Dick Russell but it was Bryan Crnston who won a Tony award for his acting in the play and whose performance reverberated throughout the film. Despite Johnson’s contribution to social improvement in the form of Civil Rights and Medicair he will never be ranked as a Great President as he reluctantly followed Kennedy and is forever associated with Vietnam. Yet there was no better manipulator of Congress, utterly ruthless and unprincipled to achieve a wholly laudable mission of improving the political lot and social standing of the American black man. This film caught all of this.