Director: John Frankenheimer
Writer: Daniel Giat
Cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt and Nancy Schreiber
by Jon Cvack
I’ve been discovering a handful of phenomenal HBO made-for-tv movies, kicked off with the absolutely incredible and underrated war film When Trumpets Fade, revisiting Kevin Spacey in Recount, and finding Path to War now available on HBO Go. The film came out at the height of the Iraq War, and the parallels are striking. The entire film takes place in the LBJ’s White House, shortly after he won re-election, vowing to avoid escalating the conflict in Vietnam, and doing a far better job of exploring the man than HBO’s 2016’s All the Way (Bryan Cranston's performance aside).
At this point, LBJ has retained much of Kennedy’s Cabinet, including Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense (in another great 90s-00s role from Alec Baldwin), who believes that heightening American involvement in Vietnam is better for national security. LBJ (played brilliantly by Michael Gambon) struggles with the decision, especially as he promised to push for Civil Rights and his War on Poverty, which he would eventually go on to accomplish. LBJ brings his old friend and successful private lawyer Clark Clifford (Donald Sutherland), who’s hesitant about what he can offer to the White House, other than consoling his old friend, though eventually even he shifts his view of the situation, believing that a brief escalation might be the only option to get out clean from the messy and complex situation.
The more I read U.S. Presidents the more I find them such fascinating characters from a a narrative POV. Reading Joseph Ellis’s or Malone’s biographies on Thomas Jefferson, or David McCullough’s on Truman and John Adams you realize how fortuitous most of these presidencies were. Or I watch Oliver Stone’s W. and see that some individuals are born with the opportunity, requiring only the commitment, some charisma, and a bit of a nudge. I don’t care who's running and how down to Earth or accessible they appear, all these individuals are aware of their place in history. All of the Founding Fathers knew that every single thing they wrote would be remembered, dissected, and discussed for hundreds and hundreds of years. This isn’t to discount the vast amount of talent required to become president, so much as highlighting the incredible amount of narcissism. To believe that you can lead and direct the country in the right direction requires an extravagant arrogance. For all the acting, handshaking, rhetoric, and selling/begging it takes to become the supreme leader no individual is exempt from the narcissistic requirement. It’s also one of the jobs where such a trait is easily excused. I don’t want some some humble person. I want absolute confidence. Unfortunately, balancing this trait with intelligence (which demands humility) is the hard part.
Lyndon Johnson had a fear of failing during his run for the Democratic Primary, getting completely blown out of the water by Kennedy, accepting the Vice Presidency as a result. LBJ was the Senate Minority Leader up to that point, a formidable politician, later known for his “Johnson Treatment” philosophy that’d carry on into the presidency. So connected was he to his colleagues on both sides of the aisle that some wonder if the Civil Rights Act would have passed if JFK was never killed, given how weak JFK’s relationships were to other congressman.
In terms of narrative, I always wonder what it must have been like to have to take the seat of the man who was so beloved by the country. To have to sit before his predecessor's cabinet and continue the legacy to the best of his ability. LBJ had to stare these men and the nation in the face and do his best to maintain the direction promised to the people. Interestingly enough, JFK had only won by 0.17% of the popular vote, in one of the closest elections of all time, while LBJ would go on to win forty states plus DC, taking 22.6% of the popular vote. The country supported the man, that’s for sure. So why did he give it all up?
This is where Gambon’s performance is so memorizing. We see a man who was loud and rambunctious. He liked to drink and tell stories and had a commanding presence. While he was able to navigate domestic policy with vast success (especially by today’s standards) he was also up against a country that saw no reason to go war, pressured and too entrusting of his cabinet and military advisors who kept telling him that slight escalations in troop size or bombing runs would eventually lead to victory and a quick conclusion. It’s here that the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are eerily similar and incredibly sad given how much history would look to repeat itself.
Now that the Iraq War has ended and begun to take its place in history we are seeing that it indeed was a stupid and pointless war, destroying the area, the country, and hundreds of thousands of lives, both American and Iraqi. Similar to LBJ, Bush was clearly pressured by the intelligence he received. While some wish to maintain the belief that the administration deliberately lied to us, I do believe that they were selectively choosing to err on the side of caution (albeit, with flawed intelligence), while understanding the short term benefits it could possibly provide.
LBJ didn’t decide to run for re-election as he was facing a primary challenge from Robert Kennedy and the country was spiraling out of control. Clearly, he would never have expected Robert’s assassination only a few months later, and I’m not sure it would have mattered. The man knew he led the country astray and it was time for new leadership. There’s a PBS "American Experience" documentary that showed, come retirement, LBJ grew out his hair and returned to work on his farm, referring to how he adopted the image of all the hippies that protested against him. Still, in terms of domestic policy, with his War on Poverty and Civil Rights legislation, issues that would never even come close to seeing the light of day in today’s political landscape - he accomplished quite a lot. The film shows the frustrations of a man who finally met his match in governing a war that was beyond any set of laws or modes of conduct.
BELOW: A great scene of a president facing a tough decision with only bad options
Thoughts on films, old and new
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