Path To War Movie Essay

This is a good movie, and includes some very good performances. It is not a great movie, however. While the writer understood that the complexity of the Vietnam "problem" lay in the various individuals involved in "The Path to War," he misunderstood where the contradictions and conflicts of those characters lay.

For example, given the material, and in spite of a peculiar attempt at LBJ's Texas accent, Michael Gambon acquits himself well as LBJ. He has the mannerisms down pat. And the writer does appreciate LBJ's vulgarity (which could be quite offputting, and was for many people). However, in his attempt to lionize LBJ, he misses the point. LBJ was a politician who got himself elected as a populist candidate with the concept of "The Great Society," but was always supportive of the actions in Vietnam. (For example, the writer conveniently places the *pivotal* Gulf of Tonkin incident outside the scope of the movie and it is only mentioned once, briefly, in an aside. As a result, based on this movie's version of events, and without being aware of the consequences of the Gulf of Tonkin, both domestically and in Vietnam, a viewer would think that LBJ was some kind of benevolent monarch, which actually does him a disservice.)

The writer makes LBJ seem like a victim of circumstance, when in fact he was very much of control of events, witnessed by the amount of legislation he put in front of Congress in five-plus years. This is noted in a conversation LBJ has with Lady Bird in the movie, but it is made to seem like LBJ placed the legislation for philosophical and principled reasons, when his primary motivation was based on two things: His best years were as a legislator and he knew that side of the government best, and it was politically advantageous for him to do what he knew best.

One could also say that he was dogged by the memory of JFK. He knew he had been elected on JFK's bootstraps, so to speak, and the writer does pay some lip service to this issue. Yet, the writer does not touch on the shame and guilt LBJ felt about JFK's death, which, while he was not complicit, he knew had been politically motivated within the government. And for all his professed desire for social change, he never once called the Warren Commission to task for their idiotic findings, and he was always conflicted about that, as well. It was politically expedient to let it "die," but it was not the right thing to do, and he knew it.

All through his Presidency, he felt the Kennedys nipping at his heels, so, for example, he knew if he pushed the Voting Rights Act, he'd not only look good next to the Kennedy legacy, but also have a slew more voters to vote for him the next election. (In one kudo to the writer, he does appreciate LBJ's dislike of Bobby Kennedy, who was, ironically, as political an animal as LBJ himself was. In fact LBJ's assessment in the movie of Bobby as not being "One-tenth the person his brother was" is actually considered by many to be true, and also plays on the truism that we tend to dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves.)

The tragedy, if we look on LBJ as a tragic hero, is that there was no next election for him because of Vietnam. The problem is that the real LBJ had the tragic hero's fatal flaw (in his case, a problematic mixture of indecisiveness and arrogance, which led to poor leadership skills), so when the tragedy comes, it does not bear the poignancy it should. The only time we actually get a glimpse of LBJ's character defects is during one conversation with one member of his staff. (Some might argue that his questions of his cabinet would also demonstrate this deficit, but that was actually one of his strengths: When he did not know something, he was not afraid to admit it and go to the person who did know. This "consensus-building" aspect of his personality was one of the things that made him an excellent legislator.)

Did LBJ have some commitment to social change? He did, and it was best demonstrated during his tenure in Congress, representing the people of Texas, not during his tenure as President. The writer does make a brief pass at this when he refers to his regrets at ever associating himself with the Kennedy Presidency, that it was his political undoing. (And many historians do, in fact, believe this is true.)

Another character the writer fails to fully grasp is McNamara. McNamara was always full of conflict regarding Vietnam, and yet we don't start to see this in the character until the very end of the movie. Alec Baldwin plays the writer's version of McNamara well, but it was not an accurate portrayal of McNamara, at least not in the eyes of his contemporaries. That is not Baldwin's fault, but the writer and director's fault.

Another lost opportunity is Felicity Huffman's portrayal of Lady Bird Johnson. This is an excellent actress who has done the best with what she's given, but she's given so little, when there was so much more to Lady Bird's character at this period in history. The only hint we see is when she reminds LBJ that the footsteps she's following "didn't die." In fact, the offset between Lady Bird's presence as First Lady and LBJ's as President is contradiction that is not even explored - while Lady Bird continued in her desire to see social change (she is rightly credited for having a strong, positive impact on the growing environmental movement, for example), something she had shared with her husband for many years - LBJ is buffeted by political forces that actually pull him away from some of the social idealism that many saw in him in Congress, including his friend Clark Clifford. That juxtaposition would have not only made a stronger movie, but would have been more historically accurate.

As for Clifford, that is the one character that comes through fully realized, convincing and true: Donald Sutherland's portrayal of Clark Clifford. (Who was a family friend to our family as well.) The writer has presented his character, and his contradictions, very well, and, as a result, Donald Sutherland, always an able actor, is able to not just make the best of the material, but take it to the award-winning level he achieved.

Frankenheimer's direction, as always, is good. But this is not his best movie. It has pacing issues, some throwaway scenes, and some scenes that should have been included and weren't. As a result this is not the best political movie you will ever see. Although, if you consider that the brush used is broad, it does show how complex and political our slippery slope into Vietnam generally was.

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Richard Nixon was sometimes called a Shakespearean figure, partly for the tragedy his presidency became, but the real Shakespearean figure in 20th-century American politics was Lyndon B. Johnson. He was in fact cruelly lampooned in his time by being made the subject of an off-Broadway play called "MacBird."

"Path to War," the new HBO movie about Johnson and Vietnam, may not have Shakespearean aspirations, but it certainly depicts Johnson as a toweringly tragic figure. The movie is so powerful and passionate in its portrayal, and actor Michael Gambon so commanding in the role of LBJ, that "Path to War" could play a major role in the reevaluation of this widely maligned chief executive.

The film, premiering at 8 tonight on HBO and only 15 minutes shy of three hours, is remarkably and unrelentingly compelling, a major accomplishment for the filmmakers when one considers that it's to a large degree a dramatized debate among government figures. It isn't easy to make a meeting cinematic, and the path to war is paved with meetings -- meetings in the Oval Office, at the Pentagon, in Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson's bedroom, and virtually wherever a meeting can be held.

Daniel Giat's screenplay skillfully shows us how Johnson's grand plan for a Great Society unraveled as he took America deeper and deeper into the Big Muddy. But Johnson was being taken, too, led into this mother of all quagmires by a battery of yammering advisers, many of them military men who kept insisting the war was winnable even as they spectacularly proceeded to lose it. Eventually, "stalemate" was the highest hope even they could hold out.

Giat's words come thrillingly to life because a great director, John Frankenheimer, is at the helm. Frankenheimer has experience with political thrillers and he tightens the screws with artful efficiency. His use of a somewhat melodramatic musical score on the soundtrack may make the film seem at times old-fashioned, but old-fashioned in a good way. That is, not so much old-fashioned as classic -- classic in tone, in style and finally, classic in stature.

Gambon is entirely up to the task of making a larger-than-life icon seem painfully -- and in the end, helplessly -- human. It is a performance of fire and brimstone, yes, and when Gambon as LBJ backs down a political foe or turns some underling into quivering mush, we can see what made Johnson so intimidating and so effective -- one character calls him "the best politician this country's ever seen" -- but he had more than one bete noire. As Vietnam flared up and criticism of Johnson reached a feverish pitch, he was always quick to blame the Kennedys, the Kennedy-lovers and the Kennedy legend for his troubles.

Where his martyred predecessor had been elegant and charming, the darling of the intellectuals (or Washington's version of intellectuals) and a symbol of sophistication, Johnson was, of course, a magnificent vulgarian for whom a nuance was a nuisance -- a man of action and not words who, if he'd had his way, might easily have gone down in history as the greatest liberal president since FDR. Instead, his time and indeed his soul were eaten away by a futile war in Southeast Asia that America had inherited from the French.

Implicitly the film asks one of the most maddening questions of history: If Kennedy had lived and served a second term in the White House, would America have become just as fatally entangled in the madness of Vietnam? Johnson had many of the same advisers Kennedy would have had, and Kennedy would have been no more anxious than Johnson to be known as the first American president to lose a war.

But then the movie is not some fleshed-out version of a political board game. It is foremost a truly shattering drama, a character study of a man who didn't have time to wrestle with his own inner demons because there were so many outer demons nudging him this way, urging him that way.

Gambon's portrayal is enormous and easily dominates the film, but with few if any exceptions the other members of the cast stand up to him, and Giat's script is especially commendable in the way it gives complexity to each characterization. It's no simple matter of hawks and doves competing for Johnson's heart and mind. George Ball (Bruce McGill) is indeed the one man in the inner circle who from the beginning warns that pursuit of the war is folly, that any increase in America's involvement can only lead to ruin. And yet gradually we see Ball become consumed by the war and by his sense of being a lone voice of reason and logic, as if being the only sane person has managed to drive him insane.

Similarly, Donald Sutherland's portrait of Clark Clifford is full of trenchant shadings and provocative details. What seems compassionate one moment turns coldly cunning the next. Clifford softens his opposition to escalation because he thinks it's best for Johnson's image to do so. Before it's all over, he's become nearly as hawkish as the colossally misguided Gen. William Westmoreland (Tom Skerritt). The tragedy of Vietnam is partly that the misguided were doing most of the guiding.

Alec Baldwin has the critical role of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a man relying on old ideas to fight what was for America a new kind of war (though perhaps not unlike the war in which the country won its own independence a couple of centuries earlier). One problem for Baldwin is that he's one of those actors who's chosen to have a high political (liberal) profile off-screen, so some viewers may find themselves looking for ulterior motives, rather than artistic ones, in the way he plays the part. But Baldwin does seem to find him an essentially honorable man -- honorable and pitifully self-deluded.

Gambon may not have Lyndon Johnson's accent down perfectly, but his raging-bull comportment seems right on the money. We see Johnson at his best as well as his worst, as when he cagily invites George Wallace up to the White House at a particularly crucial juncture in the civil rights movement. The pugnacious and bigoted Wallace (Gary Sinise) is brilliantly manipulated by Johnson into doing precisely what Johnson wants him to do. Before the meeting, Johnson says of Wallace, "I want his pecker in my pocket," and who could doubt the authenticity of a Johnsonian line like that?

Johnson takes immense pleasure in his political victories and indeed in his own performance as president; in an early scene he watches a videotape of his inaugural address and gives himself what amounts to a rave review. His devotion to the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights legislation is seen as more than a matter of personal pride, however; he zealously believes in the changes he thinks he can make. As loud and rambunctious and physical as he could be, Johnson could also wax poetic on the beauties of "the Texas hill country in the spring," then in the next moment regale colleagues with a metaphorical tale about a stud bull entering a corral full of cows. He uses a Cutty Sark bottle as a prop; you can probably guess what it's supposed to represent.

The war goes on and on and Johnson's popularity sinks lower and lower. He vows never to send in ground troops and a moment later, they're there. The numbers escalate wildly. At each stage he is assured by the generals that this next step will be decisive -- and often it is, but in the opposite way it was intended.

In a reflective moment, Johnson describes himself as a man going down in a plane: "I can crash with it and burn up, or I can jump and die." He is, finally, left with no desirable alternatives, his elite brain trust outsmarted by a nation of peasants whom they snobbishly regard as primitives. Those of us who lived through the era -- perhaps as college students marching around with burning candles, or doing whatever we could to avoid going to Vietnam ourselves and becoming part of the tragedy -- may be able, perhaps for the first time, to see the ordeal from Johnson's perspective.

We can sense the anguish he must have felt as he personally signed letters to parents of those who died in the war, ostensibly in service to their country. Frankenheimer and Giat for the most part stay inside Johnson and his lush isolated world, but the growing protests from outside make their way through the walls of the White House, and the filmmakers suggest that, unlike Nixon, Johnson was truly wounded by the vitriol he inspired, by such merciless and penetrating rhetorical chants as "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?" He may himself have been dying inside; we didn't really know that then.

The film isn't entirely grim. A scene in which LBJ, at the wheel of a big ol' white Lincoln convertible, with Lady Bird (a rather colorless Sarah Paulson) at his side, brings back the glorious, posterity-be-damned esprit of the man. The film's verisimilitude is helped by such minor details as the casting of John Valenti as his father, presidential adviser Jack Valenti, even though the young Valenti won't be winning any acting prizes. From whatever angle you approach it, though, "Path to War" is a tremendous achievement -- not as a history lesson but as a profoundly emotional experience.

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