Game Change, 1964: A Review of HBO’s “All the Way”

Post by Nathan Blake

2 Shot contributor Nathan Blake reviews HBO’s All the Way, directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston.

When Lincoln was released nearly four years ago, I was surprised at the number of historically challenged bloggers who were shocked to learn that Democrats opposed the 13th amendment and the abolition of slavery. It was a rude awakening for many viewers to witness the cruel metaphors and racial slang that Democratic congressmen in the film used to describe slaves and African Americans. Isn’t the Democratic Party historically more concerned with helping minorities, women and the disabled?

HBO’s All the Way, which focuses on President Lyndon Johnson’s first year in office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, demonstrates in gripping fashion that point in history where the Democratic Party became, in terms of civil rights issues, the party it is today. Of course, the build up to this change began decades earlier.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt took early steps to lead the party away from racist views that were still clearly held by President Woodrow Wilson about a decade and a half earlier. Wilson notably raved about how D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist Birth of a Nation was a great film that everyone should see. The influence of that film and earlier, socially conservative party leaders are evident in the behavior of several southern Democrats in All the Way. From the earliest days of his presidency, Johnson was placed in the middle of a war within the party over its platform. The outcome of the struggle led to an altered electoral map and a Republican Party grip on southern states that has not weakened in over fifty years.

The battle over the party’s stance on equality comes to a head at the beginning of the film. After Johnson (Bryan Cranston) takes the oath of office, civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie) and Bob Moses (Marque Richardson) worry that the new president will not follow through on the promises of his predecessor. They, along with Democratic Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey (Braldey Whitford), keep pressure on the President and Congress to act on civil rights legislation. Other members of the party, such as Richard Russell Jr. (Frank Langella), vow to filibuster the bill and pressure Johnson not to help push it through. The fight over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and its implications for the 1964 general election, make for a complex tale of power, corruption, compromise and political determination.

Although President Johnson is, in terms of screen time, the main character here, this is really an ensemble work. The cast is exceptional. In addition to the aforementioned performances, we also get excellent work from Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover and Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson. The number of memorable performances by this large cast is so great that it is impossible to mention everyone in this review.

In terms of Cranston’s performance, the highest compliment that can be paid is that he is Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln good. Cranston nails everything that you are likely to read in history books about the 37th President’s behavior. The intimidating way he corners opponents to his colorful (often sexist, racist and homophobic) language and even his habit of talking to staffers from the bathroom, with the door wide open, is all featured here so well that calling it a re-enactment seems like an insult.

Far from embracing the great man theory of history, however, this depiction of Johnson reveals that progress often came in spite of him, and that he actually impeded much of it for personal political gain. Much of the credit for this measured characterization goes to writer Robert Schenkkan. The script is adapted from his play of the same name. One can only imagine how many hours went in to researching this project, but it paid off.

Aside from being an important historical film, this is also a solid adult drama. Schenkkan, director Jay Roach (Recount, Game Change) and producer Steven Spielberg (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies) have created this year’s best Oscar contender that is not technically qualified to be nominated for Oscars. With projects like this, one has to wonder how long it will take for the Emmy to be seen as the more prestigious award of the two.

All the Way also should remind us of our times. The work of Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Moses, and many others in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the contributions made by Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and those who wanted American society to provide more freedom for everybody, are still very much threatened by individuals running for office today.

It is a problem summed up by an early scene in the film. Johnson, celebrating the House passage of the Civil Rights Act, is told by an opponent of civil rights that “no one’s surrendering.” Fifty-two years later, the hateful appear no closer to surrender. That’s an important thing to keep in mind, as so much work still needs to be done.

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