Rob Reiner’s LBJ can best be described as the “thoughts and prayers” version of Pablo Larraín’s Jackie: a macho, facile, superficial, and hollow rendition of the JFK assassination and the social, political, and cultural turmoil that preceded and followed. It impresses upon its audience a coterie of familiar actors caked with the densest makeup and photographed in a most unbecoming light as it teeters between historical biopic and carnival freak show. Woody Harrelson, in the eponymous role, will frequently attempt to act his way out of the screenplays numerous edifying passages (which range from profusely didactic to “11”), his obfuscating eyes underneath his LBJ mask giving way to genuine terror in having to anchor this unmitigated disaster.
The Jackie comparison is unavoidable in part because it offers clearest example of what makes LBJ so profusely bad by highlighting a sequence that takes place in both films. In LBJ, the Kennedy assassination is utilized as a framing device, with Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone arbitrarily intercutting the Dallas shooting with LBJ’s ascent to the Vice Presidency and his troubled relationship with the Kennedys. It funnels to the moment Johnson takes the oath of office on board Air Force One. With Jacqueline Kennedy by his side in her bloodstained pink Chanel wool suit, the moment is rendered as pure ephemeral horror in Larraín’s film: a bloody exchange of power that remarked on personal and national grief. But in LBJ, this moment is rendered as painfully one-note and intended for uplift, with Jackie Kennedy’s presence rendered as purely ornamental. The moment, for what it means, signals a clear divide in beginnings and ends. But Reiner absolves himself of any responsibility to confront any real emotion. The sequence doesn’t speak to LBJ’s narcissism or inadequacies. Nor does it say anything about any of the orbiting supporting characters that fill out the frame of the scene. There’s nothing in LBJ, and certainly nothing in the scene in question, that conveys anything but the most blasé of platitudes.
And it’s this absence of any real passion that makes LBJ such an unendurable slog. Whereas something as uneven as Oliver Stone’s Nixon engaged with a troubled political figure in an eccentric and vivid way, Reiner’s squeaky-clean pedagogy is equal parts nauseating as it is lifeless; its engineered, cliché-ridden nonsense intended for soaring sentimentality. It’s poisonously saccharine, spewing infantile lallations on a tumultuous historical past that informs our present; there’s no need for it.