It feels like you’re witnessing a miracle, at times, watching Bryan Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson in HBO’s “All the Way,” just as it did watching Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln.” It’s like seeing a resurrection of sorts, without the assistance of any “Game of Thrones”-like hoodoo.
There you are in a room with the 36th president of the United States, up close to his weary, furrowed face, sharing with him all the weighty private hours that filled in between those vintage 1960s news clips and historical milestones. You stand right by the man in his weaker moments, afraid he’s just an “accidental president” after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and you’re there in his more commanding moods, too, as he craftily pushes through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, navigating between impatient black activists and livid Southern segregationists. You get a full sense of his general bearing, by turns volatile, charismatic, dull, and vulgar, that last as he sits using the toilet in front of a rather shocked Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford).
Of course Cranston is helped in his “All the Way” miracle by remarkable prosthetic makeup that provides him with LBJ’s bushy eyebrows, receding hairline, ample ears, and banana nose. He wears lifts in his shoes, to affect LBJ’s towering aspect. But still, Cranston brings the reality, the essence, the faceted presence. One day, if not already, digital technology will be able to deliver an autonomous Obama-bot from all of the clouds of available imagery, but it will never have the depth and visceral feel of Cranston’s analog approach.
You may not be surprised by Cranston’s triumph, given the actor’s extraordinary work as the Man Who Would Be Meth King on “Breaking Bad.” Also, Cranston won a Tony for playing LBJ in the Broadway version of “All the Way” (which had an earlier sold-out run at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater). But the experience of his performance may still be richer than you expect, largely thanks to strategic cinematic choices by director Jay Roach, who also directed Cranston in “Trumbo.”
Roach wisely keeps the camera up in Cranston’s face, turning the film, which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m., into a kind of interior journey through Johnson’s psyche. On stage, Cranston’s LBJ directly addressed the audience; here, thanks to the nicely adapted screenplay by “All the Way” playwright Robert Schenkkan, he stays within the fourth wall, within the story, and instead we hear his thoughts in a more confidential voice-over. At one point, we see him accidentally run into his daughter Luci in a White House hallway, a tossed-off scene that nonetheless effectively reveals his awkwardness and distance as a father.
The dominant story line is, like many political movies these days including “Lincoln,” structured as a focused procedural, with Johnson continuing JFK’s mission to pass the civil rights bill. In some of the movie’s best scenes, he locks horns, in a gentlemanly fashion, with his father figure and mentor, Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella), whom he calls Uncle Dick. You can see fear and conviction simultaneously at play in Johnson’s eyes as he fights for the bill, aware that he’s jeopardizing his chances in the coming election by defying Southern Democrats but still driven to bring America a step forward. Aware the bill would not pass with a voting rights provision, he drops it and promises Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie) he’ll deliver that later, which he does. Does “All the Way” accurately portray Johnson’s role in civil rights? I’ll let the historians, such as LBJ biographer Robert Caro, debate that question.
Cranston is surrounded by many good supporting performers. Langella is impeccable as Russell, whose genteel manner belies his fury. His Russell may or may not know he’s railing against civil rights while a black man shines his shoes; he’d behave the same either way. Mackie is dignified as King, but the script, which has room for only one immense figure, doesn’t allow him much dimension. Melissa Leo, too, doesn’t get much juicy material as Lady Bird, but she nonetheless shines as Johnson’s firmest supporter. And, as J. Edgar Hoover, who has tapes of King having adulterous sex, Stephen Root projects enough hypocrisy to almost provide comic relief.
As we routinely watch bills get stuck in Congress, where it is always mud season these days, Johnson’s maneuvering is particularly fascinating — and even quaint now that Congress is more polarized than ever. Once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes, and Johnson’s political strategizing is over, “All the Way” loses some momentum. But Cranston’s performance remains engaging throughout, as Johnson fights his way out of Kennedy’s shadow and into his own presidential light.