21 May 2016 | Quinoa1984
has a lot to say about its time, but ours also - a "prequel" to Selma
It's difficult to watch All the Way, especially near the end or in the last stretch of the film, and not think about the recent Ava DuVernay film Selma. That was all about the movement spearheaded by Dr. King to get the Voting Rights Act passed and the hurdles he had to get it done, not least of which was fully getting Lyndon Johnson to get it going faster than it was. I don't think All the Way, directed by Jay Roach (who is practically the go-to guy to helm movies, mostly for HBO, all about major political times and movements like Recount and Game Change and so on), may not be quite as powerful as Selma is - frankly I'm not sure Roach is as provocative and technically daring as DuVernay was in that film (but then again, who was compared to that film - but, and this is a big but, he does a lot with what he's given here. And the interesting thing with looking at both films is that the roles of Lyndon Johnson and King get reversed: King and Johnson were lead and supporting in Selma, so All the Way the former becomes the latter.
Now, it might seem like it's basic enough to plant this story and have it coast on the actors - not just Cranston, who is towering and commanding and yet wholly vulnerable and tender when he has his quiet moments, but also Melissa Leo, Anthony Mackie, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root, and of course Frank Langella - and that could be enough. But anything that's really good and that can hopefully last for a while will have some resonance past its own historical and sociological interest. I think All the Way has that in spades, whether you're looking hard for it or not, as 1964 was simply a year that spoke to a lot of issues that affect a lot of people EVERY day.
It was hard for me to watch this and not think about things like the current horrors facing black people from whites in power (whether white cops or other discrimination across the country), and when congressmen and senators argue over Civil Rights their reasons seem not too far from those in North Carolina or other states when discussing bathroom laws. The themes run deep into what's been driving civil rights or equal rights or any rights in the US for decades. Even seeing how politicians bend or break or have to do this or that (even Dr. King with his compromises, which doesn't win him much love with his Freedom fighters at the DNC scenes which are tough to watch in a dramatically satisfying way) resonates today.
And with this material it has to be that way as the focus is about the politics of the Johnson in the White House, and Bryan Cranston has a character about as rich in depth as he'll ever get to play (and in case you're wondering that infamous "bunghole" bit with the tailor is shown but done early on enough so it can get out of the way in case you wonder when it'll come up, look it up if you don't know what I'm talking about, but I digress).
Johnson was a tough bastard to the people around him - indeed in this story of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act and the election against Barry Goldwater, often to people of his own party (though not on purpose, initially anyway) - and yet deep down, or plain in sight to those closest to him (a few key scenes that make an impact happen between the Johnsons, where you wonder how 'Bird' could put up with this guy for so long, in a good way), and had plenty of insecurities to wrestle with. He got the job by way of one of the major national tragedies of the century, and while he takes power it's initially uneasily held. Those insecurities also come from some of his background, where he was never really liked much by other party officials or other politicians. But when he has to, which is often, he'll make his presence known and won't back down. In other words, brutal and bull-headed, and yet a deeply committed liberal and man of conscience... until the foreign wars parts came in, anyway.
That last part is something I wish had been expounded on a little more; history like the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which propelled the US into Vietnam, is explored but briefly, almost as an aside. I can see what the thinking was by the writer, on the other hand: this was such a crucial year for Johnson for his domestic policy and for the election in general (the losing-of-the-South becomes a big focal point), and meanwhile this 'other' incident going on in Southeast Asia becomes more of a political point for him than something to ponder over as a 'well, it *didn't* technically happen, did it?' thing. It speaks more to how strong the material is, the writing of it, the acting of it, Roach's blocking (how he gets Cranston moving around a room IS direction, let's not forget that even as the cinematography and editing is standard), and the multiple layers of meaning in scenes and character motivation, that I only wish it were longer. But, as we see, history rolls on...