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D: Jay Roach / 132m

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo, Frank Langella, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root, Todd Weeks, Ray Wise, Ken Jenkins, Dohn Norwood, Mo McRae, Marque Richardson, Aisha Hinds, Joe Morton

In the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, newly sworn in (and ex-Vice) President Lyndon B. Johnson (Cranston) referred to himself as the “accidental President”. Kennedy’s death and Johnson’s sudden ascent to the highest position in US politics may have come as a shock, but Johnson was a firm believer in the ideals and policies of his predecessor in the White House. The Civil Rights Bill was one such ideal, and one of Johnson’s earliest statements to the Press confirmed his intention to have the Bill passed into law within the coming year. Inevitably, Johnson encountered opposition to his plan, but from within his own party, the Democrats. Political factions in the South tried to stop the Bill from being passed. Even Johnson’s mentor, Richard Russell Jr (Langella), worked against him, while Johnson sought support from Martin Luther King Jr (Mackie). Through a series of political manoeuvrings and confrontations, Johnson succeeded in getting the bill passed, even after removing a critical section that would have enabled blacks to have voting rights. But then there was the small matter of campaigning to be elected President…

Adapted by Robert Schenkkan from his original play of the same name, All the Way covers that fateful first year in the wake of Kennedy’s death. It’s an absorbing, deftly handled movie that packs in a lot of exposition while also finding time to explore the character and the personality of a President who, outside of the US at least, isn’t as well known as some of his predecessors and successors. Johnson was President at a pivotal time in American history, and by focusing on his first year in office, the movie shows just how dedicated he was to making huge social and political changes happen. And thanks to the combination of Schenkkan’s skill as a writer, and Cranston’s skill as an actor, the complexity of the man is brought vividly to life. Johnson the President is shown as tough, determined, and something of a bully. Johnson the man is shown as being wracked by doubt, and insecurity. Cranston gives possibly his finest performance as LBJ, inhabiting the role to such an extent that it’s easy to forget that it’s Cranston at all (though he is helped by a superb makeup job).

As well as depicting the various sides to Johnson, Schenkkan and director Jay Roach take care to flesh out the supporting characters, and ensure they’re not there just to give LBJ someone to square off with. As MLK, Mackie is patient and implacable, pushing LBJ to do what’s right, while Leo offers dignified and persuasive support as Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird. Langella is equally good as the experienced politician who finds himself outwitted by his protegé (and feels betrayed by him), and there’s further sterling support from Whitford (as future Vice President Hubert Humphrey), Root (as J. Edgar Hoover), and Weeks (as Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s top aide). Roach keeps things fairly simple, though there are moments where the political ramifications of certain decisions may confound viewers not up to speed on the issues of the time (and despite Schenkkan’s best efforts). However, this is compelling stuff that begins slowly and gradually builds up speed as it heads toward Election Night in November 1964. If there is one issue, though, that the movie itself never overcomes, it’s the flatness of Jim Denault’s cinematography. This may be a TV movie, but there are times when the image feels lifeless and looks unappealing. A little more sheen would have made this as impressive to watch as its content.

Rating: 8/10 – a history lesson that’s often as moving as it is educational, All the Way benefits from Roach’s assured direction, Schenkkan’s fascinating exploration of LBJ’s first year as President, and a standout turn by Cranston as the man himself; in shining a spotlight on a tumultuous period in 60’s American politics, it serves as a potent reminder of what can happen when a good man has his hand firmly on the wheel of change.