Well, this is becoming a comfortable little niche for director Jay Roach. Years past his “Austin Powers” trilogy heyday, Mr. Roach has directed a solid trilogy now, of political stories for HBO. And they were all first broadcast during Presidential Election years. 2008 saw “Recount”, based on the tumultuous Bush vs. Gore 2000 race for the White House, and 2012 ushered in “Game Change”, an adaptation of the book of the same name, that zeroed in on the 2008 Presidential Campaign. However, the film version narrowed its focus almost 100% to Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. “All the Way” is much more ambitious, with its source being the sprawling Tony Award-winning Broadway play of the same title. Bryan Cranston starred in both, and scored the Tony for Best Actor in a Drama. For this version, I would bank on Emmy being on its way too. Mr. Cranston streamlines his performance beautifully from the stage version (I attended that in 2014, and the review can be found in the theatre section on this blog). Morphing a theatrical work for the small screen is a tricky proposition, but Cranston and Roach impressively chop the fat, and pinpoint the focus.
President John F. Kennedy has just been assassinated in November of 1963, and “accidental President” Lyndon B. Johnson (fantastic stuff from Mr. Cranston) is thrust into the Oval Office, with roughly a year left until the 1964 election. The escalation of the Vietnam War beckons, while the nation is in mourning for its butchered king. Yet LBJ makes the passage of the Civil Rights Act his primary focus of the 12-month period, as we’re treated to the intricacies of Johnson appeasing, barreling and cajoling his way towards getting the controversial bill passed. Even if he loses the Southern Democrats by doing it. The President finds a major ally in Martin Luther King Jr. (a solid Anthony Mackie), but runs into the opposition of long-time friend Senator Richard Russell Jr. of Georgia (Frank Langella…perfect). Johnson gets a nice amount of guidance and support from First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson (Melissa Leo, doing a LOT, with limited material), plus LBJ grooms Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford…thoughtful) to be his 1964 running mate. President Johnson also utilizes sleazy FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (the impressive and prolific, Stephen Root), for the plentiful “dirty work”.
Robert Schenkkan penned this screenplay adaptation of his epic theatre piece. It’s a mighty effort, although maybe the Dr. King character gets the short shrift a bit from the stage version. But the cast and director rise to the occasion. Cranston is a marvel here, as he was on Broadway. He tones down the ‘largeness’ of live work just enough, without compromising his keen characterization. It’s a whole different ball game between playing to the cheap seats, and tight focus–and Cranston knows it. This small screen format has its limitations, but Mr. Roach was deft at honing the text. I wish I could say the same for his caricatured “Trumbo” 2015 theatrical release, but at least he didn’t fall into the same trap twice. And where Mackie’s work as King feels whittled down, Leo’s as Lady Bird feels ramped up. Either that, or she’s such a wonderful performer, that Ms. Leo makes it feel that way. She may grab an Emmy too. Like “Game Change” and “Recount” before it, “All the Way” takes very intricate subject matter, and makes it feel studied, intimate…and even warm. Hey, “All the Way” definitely plays like a television movie, but it doesn’t insult its pedigree. I bet you’ll like it a lot.