‘All the Way’: Bryan Cranston Is a Great LBJ

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

Transferring his Tony Award-winning performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson to television, Bryan Cranston bursts through the television screen with the energetic shrewdness and vulgarity of one of America’s most vexed presidents. All the Way — adapted for HBO by Robert Schenkkan from his Tony-winning play and directed by Jay Roach (Game Change; Trumbo) — is in many ways a standard Great Man profile, hitting most of the well-known points in Johnson’s biography and political life. But when you combine Cranston’s bravura performance with the still-timely political concerns the film chooses to emphasize, you get a much better than average biopic.

The film begins with the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as then-Vice President Johnson is being sworn in as president, and follows LBJ through his successful presidential bid in 1964. That’s a concentrated period of time and all the more remarkable when All the Way lays out all that LBJ had to deal with, and what he tried to accomplish. Cranston is great at keying in on an important facet of LBJ’s character — that beneath all his boisterous Texas swagger and charm, he was a desperately insecure man who wanted to be great and to leave his mark on history.

Much of the movie gives equal weight to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., played by Anthony Mackie with fiercely controlled intelligence. The immediate link between the two men is the passage of the Civil Rights Act, something both men want for different reasons, utilizing different tactics. For King, it’s one goal in his ongoing campaign to gain equality for black citizens. For Johnson, it’s a test of his best abilities to argue, convince, bully, and wheedle his colleagues in government to come around to his way of thinking.

“I think he really wants civil rights,” King says of LBJ to fellow rights activists such as Bob Moses (Marque Richardson) and Stokely Carmichael (Mo McCrae). It’s a line that shifts the movie from King to LBJ, even as it summarizes the fundamental difference King had with black leaders who were increasingly impatient about waiting for white power brokers to grant them what they deserved.

All the Way hits all the pop-culture bullet points in LBJ’s life — his delight in entertaining the press by pulling on the ears of his beloved beagle, for example — even as, behind the scenes, he fumes that King may be in league with LBJ’s perceived rival Robert F. Kennedy to supplant him as president. LBJ’s 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater gains timely emphasis when we hear the actual voice of Goldwater, via TV clips, sounding not unlike Donald Trump in the former’s “extremism in the defense of liberty” mode.

The movie surrounds Cranston with other fine performances. Bradley Whitford captures perfectly the high-pitched, whinnying voice of veep Hubert Humphrey; Melissa Leo creates a full woman from her few scenes as wife Lady Bird Johnson, and Steven Root’s FBI director J. Edgar Hoover quivers with perpetually suppressed outrage. Cranston carries the movie past its occasional biopic clichés and leaves you feeling appropriately ambivalent about Lyndon Baines Johnson.

All the Way airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.