It’s easy to see how Bryan Cranston won a Tony award for his portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson in “All the Way” on Broadway. Chances are he’ll also win an Emmy for the new HBO adaptation of the play.
This is a fully inhabited performance. The sheer physicality is astounding — the jowls, the mid-body sag, the bark, the drawl, the shoulder slump. But even more impressive is the range of moods, from conniving backstabber to righteous indignation to outright fury and crippling insecurity. This is a lion seen from all angles.
The film, directed by Jay Roach (“Game Change,” “Trumbo”) and adapted by Robert Schenkkan from his own play, follows LBJ for the year after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It focuses on two events: LBJ’s push for the historic Civil Rights Act, which pits him directly against his fellow Dixiecrat politicians, and his re-election, which is almost undermined by those Dixiecrats and the civil rights movement he is trying to support.
This isn’t politics for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those who like their historical figures shiny and golden. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie) is a major character and he, too, is painted in fully human tones.
The film posits LBJ and King as imperfect men who sincerely wanted to do good, even if their paths weren’t completely straight. Much of the backroom dealing and power brokering is revelatory.
There are some fine supporting performances here — most notably from Bradley Whitford as a loyal-if-appalled Hubert Humphrey, Melissa Leo as the beleaguered Ladybird Johnson and Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover. But, beginning to end, this is a tour de force for Cranston. Great stuff.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic
‘All the Way’
8 p.m. Saturday