Category Archives: Political Drama Films

LBJ-2017

LBJ-2017

Director-Rob Reiner

Starring-Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Scott’s Review #890

Reviewed April 27, 2019

Grade: B-

LBJ (2017) provides small glimpses of historical interest with a biography about a United States President perhaps underrepresented in cinema history as compared to other presidents but the production never catches fire and falls flat with an overproduced film lacking bombast. The film can easily be viewed once, never to be thought of again, nor providing need for analysis or discussion. Director Rob Reiner creates a glossy, mainstream Hollywood production with questionable casting choices and a muddled feel.

To its credit the film gets off to a good start introducing the fateful day of November 22, 1963 into the story. As then Vice President Johnson (LBJ), played by Woody Harrelson and wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) deplane and embark on a motorcade procession through downtown Dallas, Texas, dire events will follow. As the violent assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) soon arrives the film portrays the initial foreshadowing well then backtracks to 1960 when the Democratic nominee was up for grabs with both JFK and Johnson in contention.

The film traverses back and forth from pre to post JFK assassination as LBJ took over the presidency amid the controversial Civil Rights Bill and a still shocked United States public. A character study develops as the gruff and grizzled man takes center stage to lead the country into the future. The attempt is to show LBJ, the man, at his best and worst personally and professionally facing pressure from his cabinet. Reiner portrays LBJ as complex, brooding, and vulgar, but also as a person whose heart is ultimately in the right place. A man we love to hate? Or hate to love?

From a historical drama perspective, and a genre that has many in the cinematic chambers, the film fails. A powerful political drama is supposed to be compelling but LBJ just feels dull, run-of-the-mill, and extremely forgettable. Some examples of exceptional political film projects are Lincoln (2012), JFK (1991), and Vice (2018). Each has flare, flavor, and a twist or otherwise unusual story construction that LBJ glaringly lacks. Simply put, the experience feels plain and unimpressive.

Having regrettably not seen the HBO film version entitled All the Way starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, I cannot compare the two other than from word of mouth that Cranston gives the superior portrayal. Based on trailers I would agree with the overall assessment. Harrelson’s version of LBJ is adequate if not sensational. His mannerisms of the President may be effective, but he does not resemble the man too well. With a waxy, heavily made up face, Harrelson the actor is unrecognizable and feels staged rather than authentic.

Jennifer Jason Leigh suffers the same fate as Harrelson in the important role of First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. The actress is successful at emulating the appropriate characteristics specifically facially but also appears too made up- like a wax figure in a museum sprung to life. As Harrelson and Jason Leigh daftly teeter from scene to scene the result is marginally comical but LBJ the film not a comedy nor a satire, played instead for the heavy drama.

LBJ (2017) is of mild interest but limited as a successful film adaptation of an important figure in United States history. Glimpses of political education for those not alive to experience the tumultuous 1960’s are good but much more was expected from this film than was provided. Better studies exist and hopefully will be created in the future than what adds up too little more than a snore-fest.

Vice-2018

Vice-2018

Director-Adam McKay

Starring-Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell

Scott’s Review #849

Reviewed December 31, 2018

Grade: A

On the heels of 2015’s The Big Short, Adam McKay once again creates an intelligently written, thought-provoking political film based on facts and historical accounts. With Vice (2018) he focuses on former Vice President Dick Cheney and his rise through the political ranks to second in command. Brilliant and wise in every way the film is fair-minded in its approach, but predictably, in this era of “fake news” will be embraced by liberals but shunned by conservatives.

In the first seconds of Vice a disclaimer appears stating that Cheney was a private man with secrets, but the film-makers did the very best they could to relay accurate information. The salty language in this clip will likely elicit chuckles, but McKay stays the course with his statement. Immediately, the film flashes to the September 11 attacks with Cheney sitting in crisis mode about to make an important decision.

Vice then retreats to 1963 Wyoming as a drunken college-aged Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is pulled over for erratic driving after a bar room brawl. He is nearly dumped by his girlfriend and future wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), who threatens to find another man if Dick does not straighten out. He manages an internship and an admiration for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) a staunch Republican and White House Chief of Staff and begins his political climb.

In clever form the film is narrated by a character named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), who we know not the connection to Cheney until the end of the film. In this way there is an added measure of intrigue to the overall film as we know a secret will be revealed. Vice is also unique in the direction, with constant back and forth timeline scenes and a quirky humor throughout. Are the Cheney’s portrayed as ridiculous? No, but there is a sardonic humor directed at them as their ambitions and power-hungry motivations are completely exposed.

What the film does so well is take the viewer through the political state of when Cheney was in office- roughly the early 1970’s until 2008 when Obama took office. The Clinton years are completely skipped, but that is more to do with Cheney being in the private sector rather than an intentional slight. The Nixon years and the George W. Bush years are given hefty screen time and the latter is portrayed as nearly a buffoon as Rockwell portrays him as a boozy, dumb frat boy.

Bale is startlingly good as Cheney and deservedly steals the show. In addition to the forty-pound weight gain the actor endured and the facial and hair treatments (props to the makeup department!) he becomes the man. His body movements, smile, and speech patterns are daringly good. With a sneer and a calculating grin, we see the wheels spinning in Cheney’s head numerous times and Bale is incredible at portraying these thoughts to the audience.

The film contains a slew of well-known actors in important supporting roles worth noting. The depictions of the following are examples of wonderful casting with spot-on representations: Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleeza Rice, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Alison Pill as Mary Cheney, and Lily Robe as Liz Cheney. All portrayals are wonderful to watch especially for viewers who remember the real-life people involved.

Some will undoubtedly complain the film gives a “liberal slant” and portrays the Cheney’s as power-hungry and self-serving. While a valid point, and McKay makes left-leaning choices, the director bravely carves the film into an experience that goes both ways. More than a few scenes (including the final scene) justify Cheney’s actions, in his own mind anyway. Claiming to do for the good of the people and be a true American, his actions and yearning for power can be understood to some degree….or perhaps understood by some people.

Controversial and undoubtedly divisive, but that is not surprising given the current state of American politics, Vice (2018) tells an inspiring and rich story of an elusive politician’s life and policies daring to be forgotten that still resonate across the United States. The more I ponder this film’s importance the greater it becomes, but make sure to stay past the credits for arguably the best moment in the film and of monumental importance in 2018.

The Post-2017

The Post-2017

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #715

Reviewed January 15, 2018

Grade: A-

Amid the current political upheaval occurring during the year 2017 comes a fresh and quite timely film named The Post, created by esteemed director, Steven Spielberg, and starring two of today’s biggest Hollywood film stars- Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The film is a political, historical thriller set during the tumultuous time of 1971, as the controversial Vietnam War raged on, and tells of the bravery of a female newspaper owner (Streep), who risked everything to publish the truth, along with her team of mostly male editors and staff.

The film is an intelligent piece of writing, with a crisp script and quick editing allowing for a believable foray into a different time, when newspapers were hot and rotary telephones, telephone booths, and polyester outfits were all the rage. Spielberg is brilliant at setting just the right mood and tone to transport the audience back to 1971- on the eve of the enormous Watergate scandal. While all of the elements are in play, and the truthful story is important, the film is very good, but not quite brilliant- falling just shy of that bombastic one or two scenes that would land it over the top.

The Post begins in the jungles of Vietnam in 1965, as military analyst Daniel Ellsberg documents the progress of military activities among the soldiers during battle. On the journey home he briefs then President Lyndon Johnson that the war is hopeless and should be stopped. As history unfortunately shows, the brutal war continued on with thousands of lives lost. The film then continues on a journey of the uncovering of top secret Pentagon papers documenting the White House’s knowledge of the useless nature of the war, but each administration chose to continue with the bleeding to avoid the United States being “humiliated”.

Streep gives her best performance in years as Katharine Graham, Washington Post newspaper heiress, a woman who struggles to be taken seriously in a man’s world- especially given the time period- many men were uncomfortable taking direction from a woman. Streep infuses the perfect amount of emotion, insecurity, and charm into the role. Despite her wealth and her control, she is frequently overruled by the all male board of directors, so much so that she often doubts her confidence.

Hanks, however, underwhelms as gruff editor in chief of the Post, Ben Bradlee. Given the enormous talents of the actor, I was expecting a meatier performance, which does not materialize. I also anticipated an equal balance of Hanks and Streep, but the film clearly belongs to Streep. Perhaps because Hanks (the ultimate nice guy) portrays Bradlee as a tough, yet family man, the performance does not quite work. Also, the chemistry between Hanks and Streep is not the specialty of the film.

Evident is the correlation between 1971’s President Nixon and 2017’s President Trump- both administrations shrouded in controversy. A neat trick Spielberg creates is to only show Nixon in shadows, wildly gesturing and threatening, similar to Trump’s mannerisms- this is no accident. In fact, the entire work of The Post seems a big call-out by Spielberg, a devout liberal, to the Trump administration. This comparison of past and present makes The Post incredibly timely and topical for 2017. Clever is the intriguing ending- as the Watergate scandal begins with a security guard catching intruders at the complex, Spielberg seems to be saying “watch out Trump!”

In 2017, the current state of the media versus the White House has never held more controversy, disdain, and even hatred as the “truth” is often tough to come by or even to distinguish. “Fake news” is now a thing and twitter rants are now a daily occurrence, making the “truth” a precious commodity. For this reason alone, The Post must be a film to celebrate and model ourselves after- how timely indeed.

Frost/Nixon-2008

Frost/Nixon-2008

Director-Ron Howard

Starring-Frank Langella, Michael Sheen

Scott’s Review #595

Reviewed January 8, 2017

Grade: B+

Adapted from a Broadway play, director Ron Howard creates a powerful film surrounding the infamous 1977 interview between shamed former President Nixon and interviewer David Frost. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen star.

For someone who was too young to really remember Nixon or the Watergate scandal, the film was very enlightening and historical for me on a personal level. Frost/Nixon is also a very human story and well made.

The interview scenes are fantastic as the constant back and forth, cat and mouse, each man looking for an opportunity to either pounce, avoid, or gain the upper hand are rich with character driven possibilities. The scuttlebutt and the behind the scenes scrambling by Nixon’s men is good drama.

In particular, Frank Langella steals the show as President Nixon. He is confident, strong, yet vulnerable, and sad. An acting Tour De Force by Langella.

JFK-1991

JFK-1991

Director-Oliver Stone

Starring-Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones

Scott’s Review #536

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Reviewed December 4, 2016

Grade: B+

JFK is a very well made film, but must be taken with a grain of salt, as reportedly many liberties were taken by director, Oliver Stone, and the film can really be open to interpretation as to what is true and what is embellished. At three hours and twenty six minutes, the film is of epic proportions.

The film recounts the events leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through the eyes of a former District Attorney from New Orleans, James Garrison, played by Kevin Costner. Garrison filed charges against New Orleans businessman, Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), and in his view, was in cahoots with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill the president. Stone suggested that President Lyndon B. Johnson was involved in the coup, which led to much controversy indeed.

The plot is quite intricate and, at times, tough to follow, but the editing techniques alone are impressive. I loved the authentic, real-life, footage that Stone immerses throughout the film. As we know, the assassination, in 1963, was tragic and fraught with controversy that still abounds today. Stone was wise to make a film of this caliber despite the lack of clarity of what is true and not true. I guess we may never know.

Lincoln-2012

Lincoln-2012

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones

Scott’s Review #476

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Reviewed September 10, 2016

Grade: A

Lincoln is a 2012 film, which received a slew of Academy award nominations. There appear to be differing opinions about the film itself, however Lincoln has audiences divided over whether it’s a brilliant film or a snore-fest. My opinion leans decisively toward the former.

I recognize that (especially the first half) the film is slow moving, but I found it engrossing and well made. Even the subtle aspects (costumes, art direction, lighting) are masterfully done. I found Daniel Day Lewis’s (Abraham Lincoln) lengthy stories intriguing, not dull, and found it to be a wonderful history lesson.

Steven Spielberg does what he does best- he creates a clearly Hollywood film done well. He does do controversial, shocking, or experimental, but mainstream fare is his forte.

Apparently, this film is not for everyone, but if you can find the patience it will be an enlightening experience- if nothing else, a thing or two may be learned.