An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


For young people, LBJ is history. For people old enough to remember, that history jumps alive. Director Rob Reiner, screenwriter Joey Hartshorne, and actor Woody Harrelson have caught the essentials of President Lyndon Johnson the raw boned, essentially insecure man who was always proving his power.

The filmmakers have done a remarkable job of filming Johnson in a very narrow time frame with great originality. The entire film unfolds between the 1962 convention when John F. Kennedy became the Democratic nominee and asked – to the disgust of his brother/advisor Bobby Kennedy – Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate. From that point forward, the story unfolds in an intriguing mixture of actual news broadcasts and scenes from the new movie.

Why did JFK want LBJ as his running mate? Perhaps because he had decided to focus on Civil Rights and he could neutralize Johnson by removing him from his power as Senate leader and tuck him away in the powerless vice presidency. The Kennedys underestimated their rival.

The footage of the Dallas assassination and Johnson’s ascendency offer a sharp look at the inner workings of his mind as he gains the job he had always wanted. We watch him battle Georgia’s Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) over the Civil Rights bill he has seized surprisingly as his major goal. The arguments between Russell and LBJ show us yet again the depth of the everlasting gulf between South and North.

The acting? It’s good. Woody Harrelson gives us Johnson’s raw, nasty nature despite being too short to lean over opponents with LBJ’s threatening battle stance. With his facial expressions nearly lost in heavy makeup, he is convincing as the man so famous for manipulating opponents. Standing beside him, Jennifer Jason Leigh is genuinely effective as she gives us Lady Bird’s odd combination of strength, affection, and loyalty to her unpleasant husband.

In a revealing scene, Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl) confronts Johnson after the assassination of his brother with “You’ve made me politically irrelevant.” LBJ’s telling reply: “You’re looking to ’68.” This was a marvelous one scene capture of Johnson’s constant preoccupation with politics as personal power.

The takeaway here lies in the skillful intercutting between the news broadcasts of Johnson’s ascendency in Dallas and his insistence – against all advice – on returning to Washington immediately. He is sworn in on the plane with Jacqueline Kennedy to his left and Lady Bird to his right. He has become president shortly after John Kennedy died in the hospital. The man tucked away in the vice presidency is in charge.

The short two year time frame here is designed, acted, and directed with skill. A presidency that lasted just two years had been filled with bright men determined to bring their young strength to government. When LBJ asked a devastated Ted Sorenson to write his inauguration speech, tears were shed in the audience by those who remembered. Those of us who do remember must realize this happened 71 years ago.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : LBJ
Word Count : 500
Running Time: 1:38
Rating : R
Date : 5 November 2017


Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Mark Felt is a beautifully crafted movie about the role of secret agent Deep Throat in the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon. It can be hard to follow for people who were very young at the time. If you were uninterested back then, you may be bored. If you were, as I was, riveted by the unfolding story, you may be fascinated by a superbly controlled performance by Liam Neeson. This is an absorbing piece of American history.

For nearly fifty years as head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover kept deeply personal files on public figures to the point where presidents, movie stars, and businessmen dared not cross him for fear of exposure. When Hoover died in 1972, Deputy Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) expected to be promoted to the job after his own thirty years in the bureau.

His hopes were crushed when Richard Nixon became president and appointed his own loyalist, L. Patrick Gray as chief of the FBI. When the multiple crimes of the Nixon administration began to leak out, Gray did all he could to discover who in the bureau was passing the facts to the Washington Post. It was, of course, Mark Felt, labelled Deep Throat by Bob Woodward of the Post. Felt passed information to Woodward in absolute secrecy that was maintained until he revealed his identity in 2005.

Nixon and his White House staff were running burglaries, illegal wiretaps, and money laundering. Mark Felt passed the proof to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward who published it as he assembled evidence. Few will forget the day Richard Nixon resigned and boarded a plane in shame with the same wave of his arm he had always used in victory.

The strength of this movie is the genuinely interesting picture of Felt’s values and character as he brought down a presidential administration that was awash in multiple crimes. Liam Neeson captures the sadness of a loyal, smart man denied his promotion by the very people he was investigating. The actor has a compelling grasp of Mark Felt, the loyal FBI man who was watching the White House puncture the system.

Neeson shows Felt’s anger through a determination to discover and to end White House corruption. Honest to the core, he suffers not just from losing the head job at the FBI but from having his new boss be a Nixon loyalist. Neeson paints a portrait of a man loyal to country and to his organization, a husband and father capable of tenderness but locked in the fight to expose Richard Nixon’s crimes. As Felt’s wife Audrey, Diane Lane paints a woman who lives in isolation in the same house as her preoccupied husband.

This is an intricate story – often hard to follow – of complex personalities and rivalries with an honorable man at its center. If you were alive and interested in its unfolding in the ‘70s, you’ll be fascinated; if not it’s one valuable history lesson.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Mark Felt
Word Count : 497
Running Time: 1:43
Rating : PG-13
Date : October 15, 2017