By Britt Masback
WANT Esteemed Contributor
In the year of an unorthodox presidential election in the United States, the two frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, both have historically high disapproval ratings and the country is divided given their contrasting views and plans. In what is already a politically-focused year in the U.S., the new political film from HBO, All the Way, opens a window to look back at a watershed moment in our history that not only marked a big change in civil rights, but changed the political parties and systems within them forever.
All the Way is the HBO documentary adaptation of the play of the same name. The play, written by Robert Schenkkan, debuted in the summer of 2012 and, after changes in 2013, ran on Broadway in 2014, raking in millions of dollars and winning the Tony Award for Best Play. The film, just like the play it is derived from, traces part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s tenure as President of the United States. Starting from the assassination of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy (JFK), the film follows the hectic days and months that follow, as Johnson takes office and tries to make an immediate impact as the country mourns the death of their fallen president, JFK. The film follows Johnson as he tries to pass Kennedy’s civil rights bill by making backroom deals and playing political hardball with members of the Senate and civil rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., trying to make both parties happy. The film also follows his reelection campaign of 1964, as he battles prominent Republican and Democratic candidates. Johnson treads the fine line of enacting policies he supports, but trying to win the upcoming presidential election against Barry Goldwater.
The documentary is directed by Jay Roach, an American film director who has directed many hit comedies, including the Austin Power film series, the Meet the Parents film series, and Dinner for Schmucks, among others. More recently, however, he has directed three political documentaries, including his new film All the Way. To date has earned four Emmys for his political films, Recount, the story of the 2000 presidential election, and Game Change, the story of the 2008 presidential election. In All The Way, his skills in making political movies are shown, as he takes all the important parts of the play and molds them into a compelling movie.
Even more impressive in the making of the film are the actors. Anthony Mackie, who has one of the lead roles in The Hurt Locker and who played Falcon in the last three Captain America movies, plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Scandal star Joe Morton, who plays civil rights activist Roy Wilkens, Mackie captures MLK’s persona brilliantly, particularly his fighting spirit. If Mackie is good playing MLK in All the Way, Bryan Cranston, who plays President Johnson is very, very good. Like Mackie, Cranston captures the persona of Johnson down to the last detail. From Johnson’s thick accent, to his use of vulgar language, to his massive ego, Cranston gives the film spice in any scene he is in. He even captures peculiar aspects of Johnson’s personality, like having meetings while in the bathroom. This gives the film a funny edge while it depicts very serious times.
The movie starts out with a bang, literally a mournful bang as you hear the shots ring out that marked the assassination and eventual death of President Kennedy. The screen flips to the hospital, and you see the impact on everyone as the hospital staff lines the hallway outside the room in which Kennedy is fighting for his life. Soon after, on Air Force One, LBJ is sworn in as President while standing next to a still-bloodied Jackie Kennedy. When Johnson gets back to Washington, he gets right to work and in his first speech as president he tells the American people that the civil rights bill that Kennedy proposed would be a priority for him.
This sets up the next big part of the film, as Johnson uses all his political skills of persuasion to lobby those opposing the bill like his one-time mentor, Senator Richard Russell, Jr., played by Frank Langella. At the same time, he works to make sure that he maintains the support of civil rights activists like MLK, who don’t want anything changed from the original bill, most importantly expanded voting rights for African-Americans.
While all this is happening, Johnson and the rest of the country gear up for the 1964 presidential election. Johnson soon realizes that the bill can’t pass with the voting rights provision, and agrees to take it out. He instead focuses on passing the rest of the bill, which contained rules for fair employment and putting an end to discriminatory practices. He promised MLK that he would enact voting rights legislation after the 1964 election.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by Congress and President Johnson finally signed it into law with Martin Luther King Jr. in attendance. But, as he runs further into the election cycle, party lines are drawn and unexpected curveballs are thrown his way. For example, Walter Jenkins, played by Todd Weeks, is Johnson’s top advisor and is arrested less than a month before the election, not only hurting Johnson publicly but also emotionally as they were very close. Other race-related events make the months before the election rocky for Johnson. First, he is faced with a disaster for his civil rights agenda as three civil rights workers, a 21-year-old African-American man and two white northerners, were hunted down and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. When Mississippi law enforcement authorities failed to solve the case, Johnson sent the FBI to investigate. Later that summer, civil rights leaders demanded to have African-American delegates from Mississippi seated at the Democratic Convention. This put Johnson in a tough position, and he had to use all of his political force and persuasion to work out a compromise solution.
All the Way shows a hectic time in the early days of the Johnson presidency. The movie tells you the story of the hard battle LBJ fought to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. You see him using his power of persuasion to please civil rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of Congress who wanted to maintain the status quo. He did all of this while running for office and defeating his Republican rival, Barry Goldwater, so that he could enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and introduce his Great Society, anti-poverty initiatives. The film comes as welcome relief in a hectic election year.
Photo Credit: Asolo Rep Theater