What do you say we take up a collection and send every one of those clowns in Congress to “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s jaw-dropping political drama about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Herculean efforts (and Pyrrhic sacrifices) to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. Bryan Cranston — three-time Emmy winner and everybody’s favorite bad boy as the scholarly drug czar in “Breaking Bad” — owns the role of LBJ, cracking the politician’s hard shell to expose the man’s personal crisis of conscience. But the shocker is watching real legislators legislating, crossing the aisle, however reluctantly, to get difficult things done.
Johnson was famously crude, rude, and ruthless. Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “The Kentucky Cycle,” packs all that into his rich character study and Cranston embraces it all with his no-holds-barred performance. He’s a big man, putting on a big show as the born politician who doesn’t hesitate to use every trick in the book to get results.
Instead of trying to capture the entirety of this complex character and his incredible legacy (didn’t it take Robert Caro four volumes — and counting?), the scribe shrewdly focuses on one pivotal moment of his career. No, not the heartbreak of the Vietnam War, but the first historic achievement of his Great Society legislation, the hard-fought passage of the Civil Rights Act.
In this beautifully built dramatic piece, it takes the scribe just under three (perfectly paced) hours to cover that tumultuous year, from November 1963 to November 1964, in which Vice President Johnson assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, engineered the passage of a landmark civil rights bill, and was elected in his own right as our 37th president. That is to say, it was the year all hell broke loose.
That’s a lot of material, smartly orchestrated by helmer Bill Rauch, a.d. of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the show originated. (It went on to play the American Repertory Theater.) Working with a cast of 20 pros who come and go in multiple roles, Rauch keeps order in the ranks by arranging them artfully on the raised benches of Christopher Acebo’s unit set. The creatives add visual energy to the big, broad stage by letting the action spill over into the house, with peace marches, protest marches and a rip-roaring political convention taking over the aisles and the boxes.
The style is Expressionism Lite, meaning that the characters are real-ish, not quite caricatures, but not entirely human, either. The exception, of course, is LBJ, whose authenticity is achieved with a one-two punch from scribe Schenkkan’s probing characterization and Cranston’s penetrating performance.
A canny psychologist, LBJ gives friend and foe alike exactly what they want — a flattering lie for this pompous ass, a friendly slap on the back for that sad schmuck, a filthy joke for this good ole boy, a key piece of legislation for that shrewd politico. And before the victim knows what hit him, the big Texan has picked the poor guy’s pocket and stolen his vote right out of his wallet.
Watching him work is a textbook lesson in Machiavellian manipulation. It’s beautiful, the way he brings to heel Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff, trying like hell to give the man his dignity) by dangling the vice presidency in front of his nose. Or the way he uses an old friendship to betray Georgia Sen. Richard Russell (John McMartin, the soul of Southern gentility). Or the way he pledges his affection to win the loyalty of his closest aide, the tragic Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore, a heartbreaker).
“This is not about principle,” he declares, after breaking one of these promises. “It’s about votes.” The best thing about Cranston’s turn is that you’re never quite sure when Johnson is being truthful with others — or honest with himself.
It’s quite clear, though, that LBJ is entirely serious about his commitment to civil rights. For all his backroom wheeling and dealing, he gets those last crucial votes by appealing to the legislators to forget their political agendas and just do what is right.
Getting himself elected is a different story, with black freedom fighters threatening to withdraw their political support every time Johnson makes some concession to the Dixiecrats. In his own, more high-minded way, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden) is as consummate a politician as the president. But with J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) out for his blood, King is fighting for his life. And with influential leaders like NAACP director Roy Wilkins (Peter Jay Fernandez) and Stokely Carmichael (William Jackson Harper), the young firebrand running SNCC, fighting one another tooth and nail, he’s forced into playing LBJ’s own game.
And a thankless game it is, too, as Schenkkan makes clear in the second act, when Johnson finds himself alone and unloved. For all the blood he sweated, the hardest loss was the unity of his party. Making the choice, he sacrificed his core supporters of the once solid South (“my boys”), knowing full well that they might never return to the party. And he was right. Fifty years later, they’re still wandering in the wilderness.
Originally published at http://variety.com on March 7, 2014.