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LBJ docudrama 'All the Way' inspires even as real campaign does not

As the primary season slogs on, with two candidates recording high on the negative scale, people need some greatness, HBO offers one such portrait with "All the Way," a dramatically dazzling exploration of Lyndon Johnson's first year in office after the assassination of John Kennedy. (The Baltimore Sun)

The Tony Award-winning play "All the Way" could hardly come to TV at a better time for the country.

As we approach the finish line of one of the longest primary seasons in history and ponder a general election with two likely candidates who have some of the highest negatives ever, images of presidential greatness are greatly needed. And HBO, which has a record of outstanding political docudramas like "Game Change," offers one such portrait with this dramatically dazzling exploration of Lyndon Johnson's first year in office after the assassination of John Kennedy.

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Before it ends, Johnson will do what his lionized predecessor couldn't do: get the Civil Rights Act through Congress. But in forcing passage of that watershed legislation, he will also lose the South for the Democratic Party while sowing the seeds of his own destruction.

If you're thinking that sounds like the stuff of a Shakespearean historical drama, you're right. And Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, who adapted his Broadway production for HBO, flies that high with the script.

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I am not overstating the case. Consider the brutal power of this bit of voiceover as Johnson walks into an election-night victory party filled with smiling faces and wildly applauding hands.

"Tonight, we're going to party like there's no tomorrow, because there's no feeling in the world half as good as winning," he says. "But the sun will come up, and the knives will come out. And all these smiling faces will be watching me, waiting for that one first moment of weakness. And then they will gut me like a deer."

Bryan Cranston, who plays Johnson, hits the "g" in gut so hard you can almost feel the blade ripping through your own flesh.

The film is steeped in the imagery of knives, blood, nightmares and death. "All the Way" is 1960s American presidential politics as "Julius Caesar." But it also speaks most profoundly to American political and public life today.

The line of voiceover quoted above will surely remind some of President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) on Netflix's "House of Cards," another presidential drama that invites comparisons to Shakespeare. But despite Spacey's fine performance, Underwood does not have the depth and richness of human contradictions that Cranston's Johnson does.

That is partially due to the historical figure himself. As chronicled in the four books to date of Robert A. Caro's biography, Johnson was both a pathetic and towering figure, capable of acts of courage and cowardice. In many respects, he was a monster on a scale with Shakespeare's Richard III.

But, as "All The Way" shows, he could also use his tenacity, manic drive and powers of persuasion and intimidation to generate some of the greatest social justice reform since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and such Great Society initiatives as Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start are all products of his administration.

There's none of that greatness in Underwood. He can be charming as well as scheming, transgressive and downright evil. But unlike Johnson, he is never touched by what Abraham Lincoln called our "better angels."

As opposed to the kind of heroic role models ancient Greek poets and playwrights created for their fellow citizens, Underwood is mainly a reflection of the dark, dishonest, angry, shrunken, cynical place Washington politics lives today.

A decade ago, TV was offering a more uplifting model of a commander in chief with Josiah "Jed" Bartlett (Martin Sheen), the righteous president in Aaron Sorkin's NBC drama, "The West Wing." But Bartlett was more Boy Scout than hero — and an even less nuanced creation than Underwood.

He felt more like the hagiographic George Washington who could not tell a lie in Parson Weems' 19th-century biography "The Life of Washington" than a flawed human being battling internal and external forces to create something that would help and inspire others. Today, 10 years after the series left the air, Bartlett seems flat and false.

But the sins and agonies of Schenkkan's Johnson make his accomplishments during his five years in office seem all the more inspirational.

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Inspiration can come from political leaders themselves. Kennedy offered it in the 1960s with his imagery of a New Frontier and his call for a national commitment to reaching the moon. Ronald Reagan delivered it as well in the '80s with his resurrection of New Testament imagery recasting America as a "shining city upon a hill." Even his campaign ads with their theme of "morning in America" were inspirational, to some extent.

But the presidents since, not so much. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have done little or nothing to halt the downsizing of the American imagination.

Nor have Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump or any of the GOP candidates Trump vanquished in the primaries this presidential season. If there is anyone in that group like Johnson who might qualify under the heading of "larger than life," it would probably be Trump — but not in any good way. And while it seems like there should be something inspirational about Clinton as potentially our first female president, she is looking smaller than life these days as she loses primary after primary to Sanders.

This is where popular culture can step in. Its inspirational value is often overlooked. But think of Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful" at the World Series after 9/11. Or think of Prince performing his anthem-like "Baltimore" at his "Rally 4 Peace" concert after last year's riots.

Or how about the fist-pumping high you feel after viewing the video for Rachel Platten's "Fight Song"? There's a reason it has been viewed 177 million times on YouTube.

That's the way great popular culture can inspire us to both imagine a better future and amp up our resolve in trying to achieve it. "All the Way" offers us a bigger and better idea of what a president can and should be at this very moment when the media are filled with voters saying how uninspired they feel by the presumptive nominee of the GOP and the odds-on favorite to be the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party.

I am tired of seeing voters on TV saying they are "going to hold" their noses when they vote in November. That's not the kind of country people sacrifice their lives for.

That reminder of what a president can do and be is what makes "All the Way" more than just another outstanding made-for-TV movie from HBO.

That's not to say it is not outstanding by all the standards we use in judging pop culture as entertainment.

Melissa Leo is just this side of perfect as Johnson's steadfast, emotionally abused wife, Lady Bird. Frank Langella is superb in his steely depiction of Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, a segregationist and father figure to Johnson. Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King Jr., and Bradley Whitford as Minnesota's liberal senator, Hubert Humphrey, more than hold their own in scenes with Cranston — and that's saying something.

Not since Oscar Isaac in "Show Me a Hero" have I seen a TV performance the caliber of Cranston's — and Isaac's was not nearly as all-consuming and mesmerizing to witness. Take this to the bank: Cranston will win the Emmy for outstanding lead performance in a TV movie or miniseries hands down this fall. I don't care who does what later this year; it won't top Cranston's LBJ.

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And as brilliant as Schenkkan's script might be, it is director Jay Roach, winner of Emmys for the HBO political dramas "Game Change" and "Recount," who turns it into a TV ride that takes you instantly into Johnson's inner life and never lets you stop to think about it.

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The thinking comes later after the final credits roll, and you realize how diminished our presidential expectations have become in the midst of one of the most critical elections in modern history.

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

"All the Way" premieres at 8 p.m. May 21 on HBO.

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