All the Way by Robert Schenkkan is a very decent historical drama, but perhaps not quite as revelatory as it means to be. Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States within my lifetime, and after the charismatic spark that was John F. Kennedy, and a Kennedy administration that had pointedly pushed its Veep into an ignominious background, as if to distance its supercultured Boston elegance from his Texas po'boy edges, it would probably have surprised the American populace at large to know that the figure they saw on TV—the seemingly ponderous, slightly dull, charisma-free political hack—was, behind the scenes, among the shrewdest power players American politics had ever seen, with a penchant for raunchy-story metaphor, favor collecting and take-no-prisoners negotiation, every bit as formidable as his predecessor. Maybe more.
But half a century has passed, the "secrets" were outed quite some time ago, and Johnson has become the subject of a recent four-volume autobiography by Robert Caro. Even his inferiority complex about his background and crude manner is well known.
So the biggest surprise is seeing Bryan Cranston, whose TV personae (in Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad) have been quite different, step into the Johnson swagger. Actually let me correct that. The biggest surprise is the Johnson swagger itself which, in the manner portrayed by Cranston, never really existed. What the playwright, actor and director Bill Rausch have colluded to do is imbue the Johnson persona with a roaring momentum that would allow a theatrical equivalence to Johnson’s shrewdness of craft, and an operatic (perhaps even Grand Old Opryatic) grandeur to the expression of his emotional life. The retroactive infusion of charisma is notable because it was Johnson’s lack of an exciting persona that helped make him so effective in the membership-only corridors of power; he spent years as a stealth player. He would not have been quite so effective if his were ostensibly as much a cowboy personality as the play lets on.
But cowboy determination is not such a bad thing to watch when the central drama is about Johnson’s efforts to get the Civil Rights Act of 1963 passed. (Though I have to add I was less impressed with the performance as theatrical gesture. Cranston’s interpretation has size and sweep, but it missed what I can only call musicality. To use a British term, it often struck me as a bit shouty.)
There’s a palpable feeling of our being meticulously, purposefully educated here too—throughout, I was very aware of Schenkkan’s iron grip on chronology, on his careful illustration of How Things Are Done in Washington, such that I never entirely lost myself in the game. When Johnson is manipulating Hubert Humphrey with the prospect of Vice Presidency, there’s not the same visceral satisfaction you get from watching similar political machinations in the musical 1776 (which, because of its peculiar nature, is comparable); rather it’s as if Schenkkan is saying, “And then Johnson did this here. Isn’t that interesting?” And to his credit, it is interesting. But it’s only interesting; not stirring. And ironically, many of the supporting players seem less intriguing than their real-life counterparts, especially against Cranston’s bombast. As portrayed by Robert Petkoff, the self-same Hubert Humphrey lacks the dogged vehemence that made Humphrey a favorite subject of political impressionists like David Frye, and in truth made him a more energized and engaging media figure in real life.
In short, All the Way lives up to its title in the sense that, as a dramatic vehicle, it takes you from the start of its story to its finish, neatly and efficiently and entertainingly enough. But not in the sense that it gives you a satisfying rush of catharsis.
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