Apparently because the nation has been enraptured by politics over the last several years, Hollywood has stepped up to produce a number of films covering controversial political figures from years past. Here I’m going to take a look at three of them – in chronological order, both by the years the films were released, and the years in history the movies take place. So that means we begin with:
LBJ (Rob Reiner, 2016)
Although it skips around through the early ‘60s, Rob Reiner’s 19th film largely concerns Lyndon B. Johnson’s experience in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Woody Harrelson, in heavy make-up and prosthetics, plays LBJ, who is suddenly thrust into the presidency, a position he wanted, but not under such circumstances. Harrelson’s LBJ argues with advisors (at one point while on the toilet), and Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), and has a few tender moments with his wife Lady Bird Johnson, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has a fakes nose that is as pointy and down-turned as Harrelson’s prosthetic.
There are also choice turns by Richard Jenkins as the racist Senator Richard Russell, Bill Pullman as the smug, Senator Ralph Yarborough, and the dead on Jeffrey Donovan as John F. Kennedy (Donovan also played Bobby Kennedy in Clint Eastwood’s J. EDGAR). Harrelson does a admirable job as LBJ, but despite his facial embellishments he doesn’t really get lost in the Texan democrat’s persona.
Despite this, LBJ is Rob Reiner’s best film in years (maybe decades), but with its TV movie-style melodrama it’s far from essential.
CHAPPAQUIDDICK (Dir. John Curran, 2017)
Jason Clarke (ZERO DARK THIRTY, FIRST MAN) portrays Senator Ted Kennedy in this tense treatise that depicts the 1969 (5o years ago this month) accident in which Kennedy drove his car into Poucha Pond in Chappaquiddick killing a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, played by Kate Mara (House of Cards, American Horror Story, THE MARTIAN). The flames of the budding scandal are fanned by the fact that Kennedy waited 10 hours before reporting the accident, and attending Kopechne’s funeral, wearing a neck brace, although he wasn’t injured in the incident.
Clarke’s Kennedy grapples with his guilt versus his ambition as his lawyers, including two comic actors in serious roles – Ed Helms as Joe Gargan, and Jim Gaffigan as Paul F. Markham – who try to convince him to turn himself in. On the opposing side, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., (Bruce Dern) says to him “alibi.” Curran, whose seventh feature this is, has fashioned a historical thriller that’s compelling throughout. It’s also a devastatingly dark reminder of how much tragedy the Kennedy dynasty suffered in the ‘60s.
THE FRONT RUNNER (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2018)
Unlike the previous two films reviewed above, this drama is about a now obscure political figure, Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), whose chances of winning the presidency in 1988 went down the tubes when his affair with model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was exposed by the press. The film features a lot of consultants strategizing about Hart’s campaign, and his indiscretions, while the candidate repeatedly says that it’s none of anyone’s “goddamn business!” Speaking of business, one major factor in Hart’s downfall was a photo of him taken with Rice on his lap on a yacht named “Monkey Business.”
Surprisingly this photo isn’t touched on in this film, except in a few quick mentions. I was expecting a full re-enactment, and repeated showings of it when it got leaked. This surprised me because it was one of the aspects that people (like me) who lived through the scandalous events, most remember. The film’s editing, by Stefan Grube, is often choppy, yet the film is often drawn out and dull – a good 20-30 minutes could have easily been cut out.
Under his obvious wig, Jackman is fine as Hart, but the part is underwritten with a lot of repetitive dialogue. Maybe that’s accurate to the real Hart, but it makes for some shake your head moments.
But although the movie is the weakest of the three covered in this post, it has the strongest supporting cast. Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s wife, Oletha, J.K. Simmons works it as Hart’s campaign manager, Alfred Molina portrays the Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, Kevin Pollack briefly appears as the Miami Herald publisher, and comedian Bill Burr smarms his way through a role as a reporter. THE FRONT RUNNER doesn’t have enough to say to make it truly worthwhile, but parts of it are watchable, and at least its attempt to make a statement about tabloidism infiltrating the political system show some admirable ambition.
Post note: At one point in THE FRONT RUNNER, Alfred Molina’s Ben Bradlee says to a group of reporters: “I swear this is true. New Year’s Eve, after Jack died, Lyndon Johnson sites down with a whole bunch of us, pulls us in close and says. ‘Boys, you’re gonna see a whole lot of women coming in and out of my hotel suites. I want you to pay us the same courtesy you did Jack.”
Whether or not this is true, it’s an element that isn’t included in LBJ, reviewed above.