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Monday, September 5, 2016

Going ALL THE WAY

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'All the Way' on Blogcritics.

All the Way is an HBO television movie, and like most HBO films of this type, tells a cool story in an interesting way with amazing performances. This one centers on President Lyndon B. Johnson in the first year of his administration, immediately following the assassination of his predecessor and his fight to pass civil rights in an election year. It’s a fascinating take that is neither wholly supportive or condemning of a still controversial president, and you can soon get it on Blu-ray, digital, and DVD.

Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) is completely transformed into LBJ, and he’s far from the only one. I may not have been around during the events depicted, so I can’t say how accurately Cranston captures the man, but what I can say is that he is barely recognizable as Cranston in a performance that differs strongly from past roles. This is a unique character, both caring and cold. Someone who knows injustice and wants to stop it, and yet can put politics above morals. Someone who deeply loves his wife, and yet can be mean to her without realizing the pain he is causing.

Cranston is far from alone in both the make up and the acting transformation. Among those playing at his level in All the Way are Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) as soon-to-be-vice-president Hubert Humphrey, Melissa Leo (Treme) as the always supportive first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, Stephen Root (Justified) as paranoid J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Langella (The Americans) as presidential friend-turned-foe Senator Richard Russell, and Anthony Mackie (the Captain America films) as Martin Luther King Jr. Each delivers a fantastic performance.

The story itself focuses on a very a narrow time, just the first year of Johnson’s presidency. The decision to do this is an interesting one as I think most filmmakers would be tempted to take a wider view, and normally I’d wish they would. The reason it pays off here is because All the Way is treated like a character study, zeroing in on who LBJ was and why he did the most notable things he did, which is a question worth examining. It does so without judgment, and with a balanced view. Like Cranston did in Breaking Bad, he manages to convey a portrait of a complex individual that becomes much more fascinating than the story itself, proving the choice is a smart one.

To make the man more interesting is a feat unto itself given the very tumultuous time period in which All the Way takes place. An assassination of a popular leader has just taken place. The politics of a nation is about to undergo a huge shift. Parties fight for their base, which they lose with a momentous decision. While things aren’t as personally ugly as they are in the current election cycle, the racial and social tensions could not be higher. And yet, this is background and context for LBJ, rather than the point of the piece.

There are sadly only a brief pair of bonus features, though they’re both pretty good. “Bryan Cranston Becoming LBJ” is exactly what it sounds like, with the actor discussing his approach to the character, and a look at the make up, hair, and prosthesis needed to complete the transformation. “All the Way: A Walk Through History” speaks to what is actually happening in the world during the era, much of which is included in the movie satisfactorily enough, but I’ll never complain about a featurette that backs up the factual side of what a film shows.

In short, I like the movie itself, and the extras, while too few, are solid, giving me no hesitation in recommending this release. All the Way is already available for digital download, and will arrive on Blu-ray and DVD on September 6th.

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