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'All the Way' may not settle LBJ debate, but it does elevate it

The conflict currently brewing among Democrats over idealism vs. pragmatism is dramatized in epic fashion in a new film about a past party standard bearer.

The conflict currently brewing among Democrats over idealism vs. pragmatism is dramatized in epic fashion in a new film about a past Democratic standard bearer who was imbued with healthy doses of both: Lyndon Johnson.

"All the Way," which debuts on HBO this Saturday, is an adaptation of the acclaimed hit Broadway production about the 36th president, starring Bryan Cranston. The "Breaking Bad" actor reprises the Johnson role in this expansive version and he's almost unrecognizable in remarkable make-up that supports a towering, warts-and-all performance that feels at times more like a resurrection than a recreation.

In a panel discussion following the film's premiere in New York City on Tuesday, Cranston described the role of the former president as "Shakespearean," and this ambitious project backs up the hyperbole.

The film covers the tumultuous 12 months between the assassination of John F. Kennedy (which led to Johnson's ascent to the presidency) and Johnson's historic landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 general election. During that period, using methods that were not always pretty or politically correct, Johnson won the passage of one the most celebrated pieces of legislation in U.S. history, the Civil Rights Act, while simultaneously managing his game-changing campaign and the opening salvo of what would become the Vietnam War.

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This take on Johnson arrives amid a longstanding debate, particularly in progressive circles, over what his legacy should be. Hillary Clinton ignited a firestorm when she argued during her 2008 campaign for the White House: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," adding, "it took a president to get it done." Six years later, "Selma," Ava DuVernay's acclaimed film about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s movement to raise awareness about the lack of voting rights for black Americans in the South, was pilloried by some critics for suggesting that Johnson largely stood in opposition to King's efforts, before becoming a somewhat reluctant ally in the end.

"All the Way" does not settle once and for all how history should judge Johnson or determine how much credit he deserves for the inaction of pro-civil rights legislation. Instead, it fully embraces the ambiguity that many progressives feel about the contradictory aspects of the man's personality, delivering as close to a definitive portrait as audiences have ever seen. 

In Oliver Stone's underrated 1995 film "Nixon," Anthony Hopkins (playing the 37th president) stares at portrait of JFK and opines, "When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are." The self-deprecating line could just as easily apply to Johnson. Never as glamorous or articulate as Kennedy, Johnson didn't feel like he engendered the same kind of affection from the public that he so desired.

"All the Way" conveys Johnson's insecurity and paranoia on this front ("Accidental president, that's what they'll all say," he mutters shortly after assuming the mantle) but also highlights his sensitivity -- when he recounts his experience seeing prejudice firsthand while working with Mexican immigrants, or when he learns of the discovery of slain civil rights workers' bodies in Mississippi.

According to Cranston, it was Johnson's humanity that provided inspiration for his performance. While researching for the role at Johnson's presidential library, the actor came across a thank you note from former first lady Jackie Kennedy, written just five days after her husband's murder. She thanked LBJ for penning two separate notes to her young children, praising their father. Cranston remembers being struck by Johnson's willingness to be that tender amid the weight of the presidency falling onto his shoulders.

"That was the one thing that I took ... this is the seed that I'll now be able to grow LBJ out of that. That was the heart of the man," Cranston said Tuesday. "Whatever flaws he may have, as any man or woman will have, he had that and from that he had a sense of decency."

Still, the film doesn't shy away from the former president's dark side. Instead of allowing him to become simply a caricatured buffoon or a conniving schemer, the film is nuanced enough to convey a man who had no compunction about tossing around a more folksy version of the n-word ("nigra"), while at the same time deftly paying homage his strong-arm tactics to get members of his own party in line.

Cranston's LBJ is petulant, boorish, even cruel at times -- but his political acumen is above reproach. While "Selma" implied that perhaps Johnson's reticence on voting rights may have been symptomatic of a lack of moral fortitude, "All the Way" argues that the president simply recognized the political stakes and earnestly believed that the civil rights bill would stand no chance of passage at that point with that element included.

"Nothing comes free, nothing, not even good. Especially not good," Johnson says in the film. It's a line that one could imagine Clinton uttering today to the Democratic faithful. Of course, unlike Clinton, Johnson did not have to contend with a 24-hour media microscope, so he could wheel and deal as much as he liked with little reprisal, even if on occasion his actions were shameful (like calling a press conference to preempt civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer's legendary speech before the Democratic convention credentials committee).

"All the Way" evokes a kind of uneasy nostalgia for a time when bipartisan deals could be cut and there was an appetite for far-reaching legislative agendas. Johnson's accomplishments during this period -- both civil rights and voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid and the often overlooked Fair Housing Act -- remain formidable and a testament to the power of government to enrich the lives of everyday citizens.

"In 2016, when people are often so discouraged about their government and about the practical consequences and effect of government [it's important to remember] that government can actually do great good for people if that is its intention," the film and play's writer Robert Schkenkkhan said following the film's premiere on Tuesday. "That's the focus for all us I think." 

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However, the film also sounds some ominous notes about fights to come. Johnson's use of flawed intelligence to engage with Vietnam will strike a familiar chord with those who recall the build-up to George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Johnson's infamous "daisy ad" (which implied his Republican opponent would bring about a nuclear war) may seem extreme now, but it was effective and jump-started an era of vicious campaign advertising. And the appallingly offensive floor speeches of members of Congress filibustering the Civil Rights Act, sound eerily familiar to the language being used today in opposition to making the U.S. more inclusive of the LGBT population.

The film does also not sidestep Dr. King's flaws, such as his now widely known penchant for extramarital sex, nor does it water down the staunch opposition he faced from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (who is portrayed as personally dictating a piece of hate mail to MLK) and Southern members of the president's own party, some of whom (like then-segregationist Strom Thurmond) spurn the Democrats and never return following the civil rights bill's passage.

"It really is the heart of the American narrative, this ongoing struggle for 200-plus years between the ideals of America, which are so extraordinary, and the reality of America which is considerably less extraordinary, particularly in terms of race," said Schkenkkhan. 

According to Schkenkkhan, what is inspirational about this particular story is that despite not agreeing on "tactics or timing" two iconic men, who were "not saints" -- MLK and LBJ -- were able to reach common ground and change the country forever.

"Justice flows like water, but it doesn't flow in a steady stream, sometimes it’s a trickle, sometimes it’s a torrent, sometimes it gets dammed up for a long time and then when the dam breaks all hell breaks loose," he said. "But the point is to keep moving forward."