One of the disadvantages of seeing movies on TV is that one often misses the beginning. That happened to me recently with the superb HBO production of John Frankenheimer’s new film about LBJ (President B. Johnson), Path to War.
This film is graced by an absolutely marvelous acting performance by the great British actor Michael Gambon, who gives us LBJ to the letter --- emotional, bullying, irrational, humane, arrogant, crude, constantly troubled, and almost impossibly vain. The film follows the course of his last term in office, following his demolition of Barry Goldwater in the general election.
It describes how the President despised that tin-pot little country in south-east Asia, that he thought --- and why not?--- the United States should be able to blow out of the water. Unfortunately, that Ho Chi Minh showed no disposition to just disappear.
Told by one of his aides, Robert McNamara that the South Vietnamese were losing the war, LBJ exploded: “I know they’re losing. You don’t need a phi beta kappa to know they’re losing. Any man who knows how to pour piss out of a boot knows they’re losing.” And then he tells them, “Let’s get this thing done!” with perfect confidence that he has the muscle to get rid of Ho Chi Minh, that troublesome insect.
LBJ told his aides, World War Two killed off Roosevelt’s New Deal, but he was determined that was not going to happen to his Great Society program, his program to improve civil rights, health care, welfare and the condition of the poor in these great united states of America. No, sir! There ain’t gonna be any World War Three. It ain’t gonna happen, by God!
Anyway, having been gripped by this film previously, today I was lucky enough to turn it on at the beginning, which is a superb evocation of the triumph of Johnson’s election.
There are gripping scenes of Johnson’s appalled reaction to the scenes of brutality taking place in Alabama as the governor there, George Wallace, worked to prevent black children from entering schools and universities. Johnson whistled up the governor, and once he was settled in his chair he leaned over with his face close against Wallace’s and said, “Don’t shit me, George…” Then he called for a copy of the constitution and said, “Now let me see, somewhere in here it must say that Negroes have the right to vote.” Wallace had come with the intention of asking that the federal power keep out of this area ofstates’ rights, but by the time Johnson had finished with him he said, nervously, that he had had time to re-evaluate, and then he went before the cameras and announced he was accepting federal help to maintain law and order, in which, he said, he had an “eternal belief.”
Johnson went on TV. “There is no Negro problem,” he said. “There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem. There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma Alabama…. This Wednesday I will introduce a law that will eliminate illegal barriers to the most basic American right --- the right to vote.” The federal troops went to Alabama and accompanied the children into the schools.
But inexorably, what Johnson didn’t want to happen overcame him --- the Vietnamese kept fighting. “I want to leave the footprint of America in Vietnam, hospitals, schools, but bomb craters, that’ll be our footprint!”
Seen by many as becoming the creature of McNamara, with his mastery of the Pentagon, his constant escalation of America’s presence in Vietnam, Johnson and his noble programmes were, in fact, stymied by the Vietnam war, and by the time it was all over, he no longer had the stomach for power, and announced he would not run in the next election. That election was lost by Hubert Humphrey, won by Nixon, who promised to stop he war, but, in turn, merely escalated it. (This film also has a silky performance by another foreign actor, Donald Sutherland, the Canadian, as the trusted LBJ adviser Clark Clifford, who is a voice of dissent and of conscience among LBJ’s aides, although he somewhat changes his opinion as the American presence in Vietnam becomes immense.)
Another brilliant acting performance by a great British actor, incidentally, has illuminated the early life of another president in a film called Warm Springs. The actor in this case is Kenneth Branagh, who gives a rivetting performance as Franklin Roosevelt in the early days when he contracted polio and was forced to fight his body if he wanted to continue in politics.
As part of his cure, FDR was directed towards a rundown little spa in Georgia which initially his instinct was to abandon because of its dliapidaed appearance. But he not only persisted, eventually he became the heart and soul of the place, eventually leaving it half a million dollars from his insurance so that the spa continues in operation to this day.
This film is a magnificent evocation of the problem polio posed to FDR, who needed immense courage even to get back on to his feet, let alone to appear before a political convention to put in nomination the name of Al Smith as the Democratic nominee for President in 1928. Assured by supporters he would manage it easily, Roosevelt barked back, "If I fall over I'm finished," and the tension involved in his getting to his feet and making it to the podium is wonderful cinema.
I can heartily recommend these two films, especially to those among us who are political junkies.
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