Cranston plays Lyndon Johnson from shortly after he became president in November, 1963, until he was elected to his own full term in November, 1964. The centerpiece of that year was the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson cajoled through Congress. The political resistance came from within his own party, as the racist South (the so-called Dixiecrats like Dick Russell, Strom Thurmond, and Robert Byrd) lined up against him on one side while civil rights leaders (like Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and Stokely Carmichael) tugged from the other.Now, that production has been turned into an HBO movie, which debuted Saturday night, and it's even better. Opening up the story from the confines of the stage allows director Jay Roach -- who also did the brilliant "Recount" and "Game Change" -- to provide a bigger canvas for Cranston and his co-stars (Bradley Whitford, Frank Langella, Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo, Stephen Root, Joe Morton), and they take full advantage of it.
The actors portraying those men, as well as the women who play LadyBird Johnson and others, plus Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover, all give solid performances, but it is Cranston's energy that drives the show. He's on stage for virtually the entire three hours, and his LBJ is in constant motion, even when sitting down. It's a powerful, densely verbose performance that must leave him drained nightly.
There were a couple of times where I thought I heard echoes of Walter White, another Cranston character who didn't suffer fools gladly and used his wits to stay one step ahead of his opponents. Many in the audience were no doubt drawn to "All The Way" because they knew Cranston's talents from his years on "Breaking Bad" -- and wanted to see him play LBJ as The President Who Knocks. Whether it's his celebrity or the 50th anniversary of the civil rights act that's putting them in the seats, they end up with a helluva history lesson.
Labels: television, theater