Covering just a couple of years of a president's life, and building to the climactic passage of significant legislation, Rob Reiner's LBJ is assembled on the chassis of Lincoln but rather than soul, it runs on flop sweat. Despite its frequent dreadful flashes to the motorcade parading Present Kennedy through Dallas, Reiner's film, like most Reiner films, is mostly a frothy patter comedy, its chatter worked over so that scenes bounce from joke to joke. A West Wing full of straights are forever setting up the hero to snap back with a punchline. Worse, Reiner seems worried at every moment that we might not be following, so his characters baldly explicate every theme or idea. Early on, an aide insists to another aide, "He's the best Senate majority leader this country's ever had. He works harder than --." On and on it goes, as if we hadn't seen, just a few minutes earlier, Johnson working that hard, being that leader.
As Johnson, Woody Harrelson wears makeup that suggests Bob Hope more than the hangdog look of the 36th president. He's given too little room to inhabit Johnson, to reveal to us the man's drift of mind. Instead, he's continually performing greatest-hits Johnson schtick, conducting a meeting from the toilet or laying into an anecdote about the biggest "titties" he ever saw. Reiner expects too little of audiences, seeming to assume that we're interested in the idea of political machinations but that we couldn't possibly track a vote count or the slow grinding drama of congressional procedure. The hugely contentious 1964 Civil Rights Act passes here due only to the magic of montage.