Review: Bryan Cranston Is Riveting as LBJ in HBO’s ‘All the Way’

Cranston and Anthony Mackie shine in a production that transfers Tony-winning play to television and brings Civil Rights era alive

Anthony Mackie and Bryan Cranston in "All the Way"

“The Democratic Party just lost the South for the rest of my lifetime, and maybe yours,” President Lyndon B. Johnson tells Vice President Hubert Humphrey ebullient about civil rights gains. “What the f–k are you so happy about?”

Such was the style of LBJ, the profane, bullying, politically calculating 36th president of the United States. In an earlier time of congressional gridlock, Johnson — by turns charming and tyrannical, jovial and autocratic — practiced an in-your-face style of politics that frustrated and terrified adversaries and allies alike in the year after the Kennedy assassination.

HBO’s “All the Way” revisits the civil rights era that defined the Johnson White House, but this is no quick ride in the wayback machine. Then as now, the nation was culturally and racially divided; police use of force had often-fatal consequences for African Americans; voter registration efforts were under attack; the country was at a crossroads in the run-up to a pivotal election. The production, which premieres on May 21, suggests the inescapable parallels between America of the turbulent ’60s and America today.

And it gets us under the hide of this American president, during a relative lull before the other major preoccupation of the Johnson years: the Vietnam War.

Jay Roach‘s smart direction and the brilliant script by Robert Schenkkan (adapted from his Tony-winning play) are essential to capturing the dynamics of an era and its principal players. Likewise, Bill Corso’s impressive make-up is indispensable to getting these historical characterizations just right.

But the acting’s the thing, and there’s not a disappointing performance in this stellar ensemble cast. Among the actors who vanish into their roles are Oscar winner Melissa Leo, terrific as Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady and a woman juggling roles of mother, national figure and sounding board/sanctuary for a complicated, often difficult husband.

Frank Langella shines as Richard Russell, the hard-core segregationist senator from Georgia, symbol of the southern Democrats who aided Johnson’s rise to power, and a man in the impossible position of being both LBJ’s friend and political foe. Bradley Whitford is in equally top form as Humphrey, LBJ’s vice president and subject to his boss’s abuses and suspicions.

Anthony Mackie gives new evidence (as if any were needed) that he’s one of the more versatile, accomplished actors in Hollywood. It’s been a good year for Mackie; with a reprise of his role as Falcon in “Captain America: Civil War.” Mackie’s turn here, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will only burnish his growing reputation.

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Mackie’s convincing MLK is by turns strategist, arm-twister, preacher and (in one potentially provocative scene) all-too-human being — in all, a performance that ably showcases King’s buttoned-down complexities.

But it’s Bryan Cranston‘s pitch-perfect performance as Lyndon Baines Johnson that grabs and holds you. In 2014, Cranston won the Tony for best lead actor for playing the LBJ role on Broadway. You can see why in HBO’s production.

Simply put, Cranston inhabits LBJ; the president’s quirks and mannerisms are here in an intense portrayal, one sure to be part of the Emmys conversation. Johnson, always weighing the perils of action and inaction, was a tower of complexities, which Cranston delivers. The four-time Emmy winner (“Breaking Bad”) thoroughly owns this role from the inside, capably distilling its transition from the stage to the tighter, more unforgiving space of the small screen.

The defining moment when the relationship between black Americans and the modern Democratic Party could have either flourished or fallen apart may have been at the1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where civil rights leaders and protesters challenged the legality of the segregated Mississippi delegation — forcing the civil rights agenda into the political debate on national TV. (Aisha Hinds is a standout for her brief but deeply moving scene in the role of Fannie Lou Hamer, who spoke truth to power at the convention.)

We’re literally in the room when the brain trust of the civil rights movement talk strategy for advancing their agenda unannounced at the ’64 convention — threatening to blind-side the Johnson administration at the hour of LBJ’s nomination for a second term.

King (Mackie), NAACP president Roy Wilkins (a spot-on Joe Morton), student activist Stokely Carmichael (Mo McRae), Bob Moses (Marques Richardson) and King adviser Ralph Abernathy (Dohn Norwood) are determining the arc of organized protest against the power structures of the Jim Crow South. Each actor brings a distinct emotional temperature to a scene that could have been just so much bland speechifying.

This scene and others provide not the usual survey of the bullet-point highs and lows of the era — that’s been done before – but a fresh, engaging look at the genesis of a tempestuous kinship that resonates in our politics today.

Director Roach has a firm grasp on visualizing the turmoil of American politics; you know that if you’ve seen HBO’s “Game Change,” on the rise of Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential election; and “Recount,” his look at the “hanging chad” controversy in Florida that snarled the outcome of the 2000 vote. Roach’s visual style in “All the Way” sometimes packs the punch of a documentary. He uses actual newsreel footage from the civil rights era; but Roach’s artful use of those moving images deftly contemporizes the role of television in Johnson’s own world).

The civil rights era was a pivot point in American life; “All the Way” makes that abundantly clear. But it goes beyond easy surface depictions of a president, a civil rights leader and the times they inhabited. “All the Way” revisits the history we still haven’t come to grips with, even as it rivets that history to the present, highlighting the disturbing connection between the turbulent America of the past and the nation we are this minute.

“All the Way” premieres on Saturday, May 21 on HBO, and will be periodically rebroadcast through June 15.