All the Way exists in a strange space for films where it is packed on with talent and amazing performances, but was made for HBO to be shown on the premium channel instead of in theaters, where its message, cast, writing, and brilliance would have a greater chance to be celebrated by a larger audience. Lucky for viewers, it was recently released on Blu-ray by HBO Films for people without a subscription to find and enjoy. And, well, if possible, viewers should find and enjoy this wonderful look at some key points in the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, as portrayed by the outstanding Bryan Cranston (Trumbo, “Breaking Bad”).
All the Way begins at the moment that JFK is declared dead and the heft of the presidency is dropped on the square southern shoulders of LBJ. We follow from that moment through a number of monumental political and historical events during the mid ’60s that Johnson’s administration impacted. Some of these events include Johnson’s speech to Congress affirming Kennedy’s commitment to social progress, the battle with southern Democrats in the House and Senate to keep the south blue, the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and push for the Voting Rights act of 1965, the tumultuous and volatile nature of the civil rights movement along with Johnson’s interactions with Martin Luther King, the rising conflict in Vietnam, and Johnson’s campaign for election in 1964. The entire film is somewhat colored through the lens of Cranston’s Johnson, who cuts in with voice over or opines to no one in particular about the goings-on.
This film is terrific. The main cast should be enough to at least buy a little intrigue from viewers, with Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War, The Hurt Locker) as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Melissa Leo (The Fighter, “Treme”) as Lady Bird Johnson, Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) as Southern Democratic Senator Richard Russell, Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”, Cabin in the Woods) as Senator and eventual Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Stephen Root (Office Space, “Boardwalk Empire”) as J. Edgar Hoover. What really leads to the excellence of All the Way is the strong, charged performances given by each of these main players. Each character has at least one moment of true on-screen power, with LBJ getting a spattering of ovation-worthy spots throughout.
All the Way does an incredible job of weaving through a number of extremely serious and delicate times in US history while still telling a cohesive story about the man who was President through it all and even infusing a bit of humor into the mix as well. It was written by Robert Schenkkan (The Quiet American), who also wrote the play upon which this TV Movie is based and while it definitely has those standout monologues that are emblematic of the medium of theater, it never feels like just a play being filmed. The locations are used to the advantage of the action of the film and the sets are full of life and details befitting the format of its delivery.
Perhaps the most surprising thing from the production side of All the Way is its director, Jay Roach (Trumbo, Meet the Parents), who made a name for himself directing the Austin Powers movies, Meet the Parents/Fockers, and Dinner for Schmucks before shifting to the seriousness of Trumbo last year and this HBO Film this year. At no point does this film feel anything like all of Roach’s previous light-hearted, prat-filled comedies. It has funny moments, sure, but those are really more there to highlight the seriousness of everything that Johnson had to deal with in just a few years of his presidency. Congrats to Mr. Roach for his deft hand.
Over the course of the film, LBJ is constantly crashing into barriers to his vision for the country. Whether those are his friends, allies, or opponents, the complex and often conflicted character of LBJ tends to find a way through all the stresses of these heavy situations by leaning on Lady Bird and his staffers for support and guidance. However, he is often found asking for support from those who are actively working against his causes, which adds a further layer of intrigue to the person who was LBJ. Watching Bryan Cranston show the immensity of all these complexities on his face while he maneuvers LBJ through all of the crazy is a treat and a testament to the actor’s abilities. This and the tactful way that each of there major events of the time are handled are great reasons to watch this well-made film.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Clarity/Detail: Excellent detail and clarity. I believed I was in the ’60s with LBJ.
Depth: A lot of the action takes place in the White House or in offices, but shots at the 1964 DNC or in Congress show that there is an adept depth in the video production
Black Levels: Black levels look solid.
Color Reproduction: Bright and lively colors throughout.
Flesh Tones: Right on.
Noise/Artifacts: Clean and Noiseless, with no noticeable artifacting.
Audio Format: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French DTS 5.1, Spanish DTS 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Dynamics: This is heavy on dialogue, so it isn’t very dynamic by design, but when sounds come in there is solid production on them.
Low Frequency Extension: Cranston’s rumbling LBJ voice and crowds at conventions got some use out of the sub and it all sounded boomy and smooth
Surround Sound Presentation: Not a lot of use out of surround sound here, but, once again, when used, it all worked well.
Dialogue Reproduction: The most crucial element of this film as far as its sound design goes would be its dialogue reproduction and it is thankfully quite perfect.
Includes an Ultraviolet and iTunes Digital copy of the film
-Bryan Cranston Becoming LBJ (HD, 2 Minutes) – a very quick look at some of the make up and vocal work that went into Cranston’s transformation into LBJ. This is really too short to give a lot of useful info, but it is still fun.
-All the Way: A Walk Through History (HD, 10 Minutes) – A brief examination of the events that appear in the film told by historians, film makers, and civil rights figures of the time interspersed with clips of the film. This also gets into some of the complexities of LBJ as a person that makes the character an interesting one to see on film. At merely 10 minutes, this doesn’t really get a chance to give a full understanding of all the things that were going on to make this film, it does okay to give some background on the finer points.
All the Way is an intimate and powerful look at some of the most difficult years for this country in the 20th century, handled by tight direction, tight writing, and moving performances. It is somewhat unfortunate that this Blu-ray release didn’t do more to give some interesting extras into which its audience could delve. However, that isn’t a deal breaker and this tremendous film should likely be enough on its own to warrant owning and sharing and discussion. I found myself clenching and sweating and laughing as I watched. And that is the sign of an enjoyable film-watching experience for me!