A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that LBJ is a biopic about U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (Woody Harrelson). It starts with his decision to run for president and covers his vice presidency under John F. Kennedy and the portion of his own presidency that was focused on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Language is the biggest issue, with fairly frequent use of colorful words including "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," and the "N" word; there are also some culturally insensitive remarks and jokes that are intended to evoke the period. A brief sequence deals with the shooting of JFK, but little is shown beyond the ensuing shock and chaos. Johnson and his wife share a kiss and lie in bed together. Politicians frequently sip whisky or scotch from bottles in their offices and sometimes smoke cigarettes or cigars. Given the era and subject matter, it's surprising that there aren't more significant African-American characters. This is a fairly simple, sympathetic movie; it's more emotional than detailed but still worth seeing, as it could inspire viewers to dig deeper into history.
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What's the story?
In LBJ, Lyndon B. Johnson (Woody Harrelson) decides to run for president, risking his position as majority leader in the U.S. Senate. When John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) wins the nomination, Johnson reluctantly accepts Kennedy's offer to be his running mate. As a southerner, Johnson is expected to help influence other southerners -- especially the powerful Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) -- in passing the Civil Rights Act. But progress is slow. Moreover, the attorney general, Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), doesn't like Johnson and tries to block his efforts. Then, in November of 1963, Johnson finds himself thrust into the presidency. Realizing the size of the shoes he must fill, he decides to go forward with Civil Rights, fighting with everything he has.
Is it any good?
Approaching this true story with his usual tendency toward lightness and simplicity (i.e., without complexity or nuance), director Rob Reiner takes a compassionate look at an unsung president. It's been a while since Reiner took on political material -- you have to go all the way back to A Few Good Men, The American President, and Ghosts of Mississippi -- but LBJ fits right in with the earlier films. But it's not particularly deep; it's no Selma or Jackie. The goal here seems less about presenting the facts of the case than painting a sympathetic portrait of Johnson. And in that, it succeeds.
Behind his mountain of makeup, Harrelson gives a sturdy performance, barking commands at underlings but secretly looking for acceptance. He wanted to be president, but not like this. And in this movie, Bobby Kennedy -- who's usually portrayed as kind and benevolent -- is depicted as something of a petulant little boy, so it's easy to side with Johnson, especially when, in a private moment, the VP lets his guard down and asks "why don't you like me?" Unfortunately, Reiner glosses over a fair number of details that don't help with his themes. And for a movie about the Civil Rights movement, LBJ doesn't seem to have much use for African-American characters. But the result is still easy and entertaining.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how LBJ portrays Johnson. Is he a role model? What were his accomplishments, as opposed to his mistakes or flaws? Do you think the way he's shown here is historically accurate? How could you find out?
What was the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Why was there such opposition to it? How have things changed since the '50s and '60s? How are they the same?
How are African-Americans depicted in the movie? Are there positive representations? Stereotypes?
How does the movie portray drinking? Why was it OK for politicians to have a drink on the job? Are there consequences? Do you think things are the same today?
How does it feel to see the shooting of JFK, even in dramatized form? How does it compare to the same sequences shown in other movies -- or to the real-life footage?
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