Paramount // 1991 // 235 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neal Masri (Retired) // March 8th, 2006
"This nation, this generation, in this hour has man's first chance to build a Great Society, a place where the meaning of man's life matches the marvels of man's labor." -- Lyndon Banes Johnson
One of the most polarizing presidents in modern history is profiled in this PBS documentary.
This exhaustive documentary follows the political career of Lyndon Banes Johnson from the obscurity of local Texas politics to the pinnacle of American power. Was he a slick Texas dealmaker or devoted progressive? Warmonger or man of peace? Will he be remembered for the War on Poverty or the War in South East Asia? This entry in PBS excellent American Experience series attempts to answer these questions.
One occasionally hears individuals described as "complex." By way of example, Lyndon Banes Johnson is often described as one of the most complex men ever to occupy the Oval Office. One definition of complex: sometimes one can be a pretty good guy and sometimes one can be a real jerk, depending on the mood and the situation. This definition aptly describes the portrayal of LBJ in this film.
This four-part American Experience documentary takes an in-depth look at the political life of LBJ. Thrust into the presidency after the assassination of JFK, Johnson inherited a nation at a vital modern crossroads in terms of racial equality, civil unrest, and the role of the federal government in the lives of the American people. His presidency ended in ignominy, shadowed in the quagmire of Vietnam.
To understand Johnson, one must go further back than his Vice Presidency. One must understand where he came from and how he operated. This documentary wisely provides that foundation. The first two segments spend a great deal of time concentrating on how he came to political power and how he consolidated his power to become the single most influential lawmaker of the time.
As a junior congressman from Texas, LBJ was an acolyte of Franklin Roosevelt. He firmly took to heart the populist philosophy of The New Deal and was a true believer. Early on, Johnson would discover the key to his political success: situational morality. LBJ truly believed in the good he could do as a politician. What this documentary makes clear is that he was also willing to be as crooked as a dog's hind leg to get it done. Particularly compelling in the early segments of the documentary are the shady dealings of Texas politics. LBJ lost his first bid for the US Senate. His contemporaries tell us in interviews that the second time around, he left nothing to chance. He was elected to the Senate by the slimmest of margins -- only 87 votes. The victory was thanks to a few thousand votes found in a Johnson-friendly district at the last minute. All involved virtually admit to the camera that it was flat-out fraud.
Segment Two follows Johnson's rise to the Vice Presidency. His relationship with Kennedy was contentious at best. Kennedy, no stranger to political expediency himself, knew that LBJ could deliver the South to a northern catholic. Together, they were elected. Part Two builds toward Johnson's election as president. It also covers the run up to Johnson's undoing: Vietnam. The film takes great pains to point out that Johnson did not begin Vietnam, but rather inherited it. The disastrous fallout of Vietnam upon Johnson's presidency dominates Segments Three and Four.
The movie also documents LBJ's staggering effectiveness as a power broker. It is proposed by several interviewees that, following JFK's death, Johnson saw himself as the caretaker of Kennedy's legacy. He did indeed pass a staggering amount of legislation based upon JFK's initiatives. It is also hammered home during the second two hours that Johnson was a fantastically successful legislator who got an avalanche of new programs through congress in a short time. Whether or not one agrees with the intent of the Great Society programs, LBJ's effectiveness in proposing them and getting them made into law cannot be argued. As we reach the final hour of the film, however, the escalating Vietnam War overshadows all of this domestic work.
The format of this film is rather old school featuring film clips punctuated by the occasional interview. Over the clips and interviews is the godlike narration of historian David McCullough. American Experience: LBJ was made in 1991 right around the time of Ken Burns's seminal work The Civil War, but it does not have the hallmarks of the Burns style. It's interesting to watch a pre-Burns documentary like this one every now and then. Burns's style has become so ubiquitous; one forgets there was ever another way to film a historical documentary.
Much of the movie consists of vintage footage of LBJ, making video a mixed bag. The more recent interview footage is relatively clean, while the older footage has its share of flaws. That said, the image is of a quality acceptable for the material. However, video is not nearly as good as the newer PBS productions since the network embraced HDTV.
Audio is stereo -- again, exactly what one would expect of this type of program and of the era in which the various sources were produced. This DVD contains the feature only. There are no extras other than a link to the PBS website.
This film profiles LBJ as one of the preeminent practitioners of realpolitik. His positions on any given issue were determined by what he could accomplish at that moment. Hence, a southern protector of segregation became the president who did more for civil rights than any president since Lincoln. In the end, Vietnam and his own personality flaws overshadowed most of LBJ's good works (including the establishment of public television which made this movie possible). Johnson's change of fortune is well documented by a film that reveals him to be, for lack of a better word, complex.
I wish the viewer could have gotten into Johnson's head a little more. It would be quite fascinating to gain some insight into how this man thought.
PBS's The American Experience has given us consistently well-made documentaries over the years. This exhaustive take on LBJ is an interesting and fair assessment of Johnson's presidency. Don't expect psychoanalysis of LBJ. This is more of a detailed blow-by-blow account of his political life.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 235 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* American Experience