By RODNEY HO/ firstname.lastname@example.org, originally filed Saturday, May 21, 2016
More than 40 years ago, relations between the president and Congress were far cozier than they are today. Compromise was the norm. And the sometimes profane, often charming, ever strategic Lyndon B. Johnson was at the leader who helped shepherd the groundbreaking 1964 Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation that reverberates to this day.
Robert Schenkkan chronicled Johnson’s efforts to pass that law and his winning election later that year in a Tony-winning 2014 play “All the Way” starring Bryan Cranston. Cranston has reprised his LBJ in an HBO film of the same name, which also features actor Anthony Mackie in the key Martin Luther King Jr. role. HBO debuts the film Saturday, May 21 at 8 p.m.
At the Carter Center Thursday less than two miles from MLK’s childhood home, Mackie, Schenkkan and director Jay Roach (who also directed HBO’s political dramas “Recount” and “Game Change”) gathered before hundreds of invited guests to screen the film and answer questions.
I spoke with Mackie, Schenkkan and Roach separately before the event. Here is my video interview with Mackie, who also filmed the No. 1 movie in America “Captain America: Civil War” last year in Atlanta (and teased Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons’ ineptitude against his favorite team the New Orleans Saints.)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Schenkkan said he was always intrigued by Johnson and wanted to capture all his complexity and his amazing negotiating skills in a stage play.
“LBJ was for a time the name you dared not speak,” Schenkkan said due to his role in digging America deep into the ultimately unpopular Vietnam War. “Vietnam so completely overshadowed his considerable domestic accomplishments, which is unfortunate and unfair.”
Schenkkan calls Johnson “Shakespearean, physically big and big in his ambitions. His appetite, his virtues, his vices. Bill Moyer said the 11 most interesting people he’d ever met was Lyndon B. Johnson.”
He said despite the fact the film is set 42 years ago, “it’s shocking how current it feels. All of the issues we’re fighting today: race, immigration, poverty, voting rights, institutional violence against blacks. It’s all there in 1964. The language may have shifted and become a little codified.”
I noted how Donald Trump has made issues a little less codified. “He’s interesting. He’s very reminiscent of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Very controversial, threatening to blow up the party.”
The timing of the film, he mused, “isn’t necessarily smart, just lucky.” (And critics have been mostly positive of the movie, lauding the acting, especially of Cranston, who is virtually a lock on an Emmy nomination.)
Converting a play into a movie can be a challenge. Roach said they wanted to convey the psychological struggles of both LBJ and MLK. “Sometimes with cinema you can get real close,” he said. “How much pressure they’re under. They had to accomplish things in a world that is complex… We wanted to be expressionistic a bit with the camera. That’s how it was different from the play.”
And like the movie “Lincoln,” this film is mostly set in offices and meeting rooms with lots of talking, very little tangible action. Roach said what is compelling is the scary setting after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “LBJ knew what was at stake: the question of will we once and for all deliver true civil rights to everyone in this country. And it took a toll on him personally. He was a little shaky during the Democratic convention. He was in bed thinking the South would leave him, that he should go home and resign. You listen to takes of his phone calls at the time and it’s surprising how much he confessed so much self pity and anxiety. Then a few scenes later, he’s accomplishing some of the most incredible legislation since FDR.”
Shenkkan said when he was casting for his stage production of “All the Way,” he needed a “transformational” actor as LBJ. “You want someone who can do two separate things: someone who is funny and charming and charismatic and warm and empathetic. And you also want someone who is absolutely terrifying.” He had that in Cranston, as you can see in his yin-yang roles on “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Breaking Bad.”
Cranston was just finishing up “Breaking Bad” and seeking a play to do when Shenkkan approached him. Cranston found this role challenging enough to pursue. He ultimately won a Tony.
Shenkkan then wanted to turn “All the Way” into a film and showed the script to Steven Spielberg, who he had worked with on “The Pacific.” “Steven is such a political animal and he loves history,” he said. “I knew this would be right up his alley. He flipped for it.” They pitched it to HBO and sold it in the room.
He marveled how quickly the turnaround was: 18 months from pitch to airing. “Shockingly fast,” he said.
As for Mackie as King, Shenkkan was not seeking someone who was “slavishly imitative.” He found an actor whose observations about the script were sharp. “I love smart actors,” he said.
He said most people know King best as the orator and the martyr but “very little attention has been paid to the politician. He was an extremely adept politician. You think of movements as monolithic but they are typically made up of disparate groups with their own charismatic, possessive leaders. It’s a tribute to King’s skills that he was able to get everybody to work together for quite a long time.”
Roach said Mackie offered the quiet strength they needed for MLK when he was strategizing. “That was daunting but when I started talking to Anthony,” he said, “I knew he would be able to handle it.”
The fact King was able to build such a close relationship with LBJ speaks volumes of his skills.
“A similar parallel could be drawn with LBJ being pulled to the left by liberal Democrats and even further by the civil rights movement tired of waiting for progress. He also faced a reluctant middle ground Republican party and absolute resistance from the Dixiecrats.”
Roach said he thinks LBJ would be saddened by how politics is played today. “He never saw compromise as a dirty word and put country above party. People run today with the idea that government is the problem, not the solution. And if you go in like that, it could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”