Interview: Rob Reiner on “LBJ”

Posted on November 1, 2017 at 12:04 pm

Rob Reiner’s new movie, “LBJ,” stars Woody Harrelson as Lyndon Johnson, focusing on the months between the tragedy of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, which catapulted him into the Presidency, and the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964. The film opens in theaters November 3, 2017 and it is an illuminating and warmly human portrayal of a complicated man who was a genuine leader. In an interview, Reiner talked about how his own views of President Johnson have changed since the 1960’s and how he was able to bring about one of the most powerful pieces of legislation in history.

Copyright Nell Minow 2017

It’s an unexpectedly gentle portrayal of a President who was a polarizing figure when he was in office.

It’s an odd film for me to be making because I hated LBJ during the 60’s. I was of draft age and I was against the war, I marched in protests. So I hated him.

It wasn’t until I spent a lot of time in politics, I grew up, I actually had a government job in California for seven years and then I got to understand what LBJ was able to accomplish. He was like a tale of two Presidencies. He was probably except for FDR the most successful domestic legislative president of all time and had it not been for Vietnam he would have gone down as one of the one of the great Presidents of all time.

So I wanted to look at this man and see what else there was about him that we didn’t already know because the image that we always had besides the fact that we didn’t like him because of Vietnam was this kind of bully, a bull in the china shop, arm-twisting crude guy showing his scar, picking the beagle up by the ears; was there more to this guy?

In doing the research aside from reading the Robert Caro books, in reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, it became very clear that there was definitely another side to this guy. There were two things that I teased out of that book. One is that he had this recurring nightmare of being paralyzed and the other was that he had a fear that his mother didn’t love him or at least conditionally loved him and only loved him when he was doing what she wanted him to do.

So it made for somebody who had serious doubts about himself; fears of not being loved, insecurity. If we can get that across, whatever his political legacy is we’ll at least capture who this guy is.

We decided to use a very small sliver of time which is to take it from Kennedy’s landing at Love Field in Dallas to Johnson delivering the speech about the Civil Rights Bill in front of the joint session of Congress. In that time Johnson has to assume the Presidency. That’s a pressure point that will bring out who this guy really is and we see it. He is paralyzed at first but then he’s able to move forward.

Was Kennedy’s death significant in pushing the Civil Rights Act to the top of the legislative agenda?

Many people think that. There were reporters at the time that were on the floor that worked on Capitol Hill who said that there was no chance that bill was getting out of Committee; it was locked up in committee. As we point out in the film, Richard Russell who was the head of the Southern caucus, the Democratic caucus in the South said, “I’ll stop this thing, I’ll make it so that it never reaches the floor.” But as events happened, the fact that Kennedy was assassinated which was horrible and made the country mourn and made us all so upset it also provided a legislative path forward. And Johnson was able to understand it because he had a consummate knowledge of how to move policy forward. He said, “You never underestimate the power of a martyr’s cause.”

He knew at that point he could move it forward and even then it was touch-and-go because he knew he was going to lose the Southern Democrats. He said, “We’re going to lose them for a generation,” and it’s been way more than a generation. It’s been over fifty years and the South is still controlled by the Republicans because of that Civil Rights Act, so he paid an enormous price politically to do that. He thought it was worth it.

Was he a true believer in the cause of civil rights?

Yes, but his belief was hidden by the fact that he had to say what was necessary to keep his seat. He never viewed himself as a Southerner, he viewed himself as a Texan and as a Westerner; he came from the West Hills section of Texas. He was raised in poverty, he understood it, that was the cornerstone of his Great Society and the War on Poverty. He taught in impoverished schools so he understood that, but it was buried and submerged for a long, long time until he saw the opportunity to let it come forward. There’s Head Start, there’s Medicare, there’s Medicaid and there is the Voting Rights Act; all of these things that he in a very short period of time.

As you show in the film, he was famously crude. Was he clueless or was that an intimidation tactic?

I think it was part intimidation but also part of the way he was. He was a very down home kind of guy. He was not a sophisticated guy and that’s one of the things that frightened him so much because he saw the Kennedys as being upper crust, Eastern, from great schools, loved, handsome, beautiful, and articulate. He thought they were show horses and he was a work horse. That’s who he was but he also knew how to show power and how to execute power.

Originally published on HuffPost

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Posted on December 24, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very brutal violence including abuse and beatings by law enforcement and individuals, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2014
Date Released to DVD: May 4, 2015 ASIN: B00S1MYWBW
Copyright 2014 Cloud Eight Films

“Selma,” director Ava DuVernay’s film about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital at Montgomery, to make the case for the right to vote, is superb as biography, as history, and as drama. It is one of the best movies of this year and this decade.

And somehow it has arrived just as we need it most, as Americans continue to struggle to reconcile our notions of equality. This film is a powerful reminder of the Civil Rights Movement cry that “we’re not where we want to be, we’re not where we’re going to be, but, thank God, we’re not where we were.” It is a reminder of the difference one person can make, and the inescapability of an idea whose time has come. And it should also be a powerful reminder that the voting rights people fought — and died — must be exercised to carry that dream forward.

This is a story of politics and race and history, but it is also very much the story of a man who just wanted to be “a pastor in a small college town” but found himself called to lead a movement, even though he put himself, his followers, and his family at risk. King has to try to keep his supporters together, increasingly difficult as the very progress he has made has made them impatient and independent.

British actor David Oyelowo makes Dr. King into a real person, polite and respectful but also canny and insistent in his meetings with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the Oval Office, devoted and compassionate with the members of the movement, stirring and inspirational at the pulpit and podium, and at his most vulnerable when he is alone with his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, who played the same role in the superb “Boycott”). Even over the course of the few weeks covered by this film, we see Dr. King constantly assessing, re-evaluating, learning, and growing.

We also see that wiliest of politicians, LBJ, outmaneuvered by King, partly because he refused to give up but also because for the first time there was television coverage of what was going on and the rest of the country, 70 million viewers, were no longer able to pretend that this country was living up to its ideals of justice and equality. Even with the passage of the monumental Civil Rights Act, which required equal treatment without regard to race or gender in public accommodations and the workplace, the inability to vote imposed an insurmountable barrier to meaningful change. At the beginning of the film, we see Annie Lee Cooper carefully, deliberately filling in her application to register to vote. When the contemptuous official quizzes her on the number of county judges in the state, she is prepared with the answer. Clearly, she has tried this before and done her homework. She gives the correct number: 67. He responds, “Name them.”

“This voting thing is just going to have to wait,” Johnson explains. “You have one problem. I have a hundred and one.” He tries to persuade King that his War on Poverty is of central importance to black citizens. King understood that without the right to vote, blacks would continue to be excluded.

Everyone tries to stop him. The FBI sends tapes to Mrs. King that purport to reveal King’s affairs. There are constant threats and supporters are murdered. A church is bombed, killing Four Little Girls. The first time they try to walk to Montgomery, the 600 marchers are attacked by the police with tear gas and billy clubs wrapped in barbed wire.

But television cameras send pictures of the police brutality to 70 million viewers across the country. The images put even more pressure on Johnson, who finally brings Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) to the Oval Office, to force some progress on the man whose inaugural address included the words, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Today we live in a world that is saturated in images and opinions, often angry ones. This film, like King’s patient but insistent voice, is a clarion call, the story of a man, a movement, and a journey that can and must continue.

Parents should know that the movie’s themes include historic depiction of virulent racism including verbal and physical attacks and murder, strong language including racist epithets, brief sexual sounds and discussion of affairs.

Family Discussion: How did Dr. King make President Johnson change his mind? How did President Johnson make George Wallace change his mind?

If you like this, try: Other films about the Civil Rights movement including “Boycott” (also featuring Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King), “Separate But Equal,” and “Eyes on the Prize”

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Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Politics Race and Diversity
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