With the swirling buzz around Election Day, last Wednesday night seemed an appropriate time for UCSB’s Pollock Theatre’s screening of the HBO film “All The Way,” a biopic of Lyndon B. Johnson’s tumultuous 1964 campaign for presidency. The event also featured a Q&A with the film’s director, Jay Roach, (of “Meet the Parents” and “Austin Powers” fame) which treated students and moviegoers to a night of lively discussion about the film and its portrayal of the complex presidential candidate.
Johnson became president in the worst way he could have imagined — in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. A Texan Democrat brought to power by the support of Southern Democrats, Johnson faced enormous political pressure from a party divided between conservative “Dixiecrats” and Northern liberals. Caught between loyalty to his fellow Southerners and the moral imperative of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Johnson was forced to make tough decisions concerning Civil Rights. “I will drag the South out of the past kicking and screaming if I have to,” Johnson, played by Brian Cranston, says, decisively staking his presidency on the controversial Civil Rights Act. The film focuses on the generational divide between young radicals and older conservatives, portraying Johnson as moderate, yet innovative. “The South won’t like it, but this is how new things are born,” he argues. This innovation becomes the driving force of his campaign.
The film depicts several important events of the Civil Rights Movements that occurred during Johnson’s campaign, such as the murder of three Mississippi Freedom Summer Project volunteers, who went missing after registering blacks in Mississippi to vote, and the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, during which Mississippi’s all-white delegates walked out to protest the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party’s attendance. Johnson’s frustration with the South is a source of constant anxiety, but director Jay Roach portrays him as a man who sticks to his guns. “I believe in the power of the government to do good,” Roach explained during the Q&A after the film. “I really wanted to emphasize that Johnson tried to do the right thing.”
There were more than a few nuances to Cranston’s character. Roach portrayed Johnson as a bully to his wife and to numerous people who crossed him. He is also depicted several times in moments of deep self-pity, moaning from his bed that “everyone is against [him].” However, every moment of weakness is contrasted by a moment of power — Johnson declaring that “politics is war” and telling senators that he “will crush them” if they stand in his way of passing the Civil Rights Act, to name a few. The film’s nuanced portrayal of Johnson called to mind today’s presidential candidates and asked the viewer what kind of qualities they want to see in a president.
Matt Ryan, director of Pollock Theatre, commented that the movie seems to be relevant to the current election season, noting that voter intimidation in the film is much like the voter intimidation on the news today. From the recent vandalization of a church in Mississippi, which was spray-painted with the tag “Vote Trump,” to Trump’s support of restrictive voter ID laws, the 1964 campaign is more relevant than ever. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Johnson asks a Georgia senator threatening to walk out of the Democratic National Convention “what side of history he wants to be on.” Present day voters might ask themselves the same question.
“All The Way” could also inspire students and members of the community to vote and appreciate the effectiveness of grassroots campaigning. The political pressure groups such as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) put on Johnson made a difference in his decision-making. Dr. King, played by Anthony Mackie, tells SNCC in the film that “Johnson isn’t going to give anything to us. We have to take it.” The movie demonstrates that voting is not a right to take for granted, and the effectiveness of grassroots campaigning is motivation to participate in the election.
The evening ended with a small reception with food in the lobby. Movie goers were left with lots to think about. Perhaps the most striking realization about Johnson is that he was able to shed the legacy of the “accidental” president following Kennedy’s assassination. His campaign proved that he was capable of leading a divided Democratic party and earning the nomination in his own right.