Two controversial presidencies took center stage in Cambridge on Wednesday night, as Woody Harrelson and director Rob Reiner stopped by the Brattle Theatre to screen their new drama “LBJ.”
Harrelson plays former president Lyndon B. Johnson in the film, which follows the events leading up to and following his rise to the Oval Office in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. While the biopic doesn’t shy away from showing Johnson’s complicated political history, it also reminds audiences of his leadership and bravery after the death of Kennedy, played by Jeffrey Donovan.
Following Wednesday’s screening, Harrelson, Reiner and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin discussed Johnson’s legacy and how it was marred by his escalation of the Vietnam War.
“I was of draft age during the Vietnam War and I hated LBJ,” Reiner told the audience. “He was an enemy. He could send me to my death and I was against the War in Vietnam.”
The filmmaker went on to say that he has softened his views on Johnson over the years, noting the former president’s impact on a number of domestic issues, including civil rights. Reiner said he believes Johnson would’ve gone down as America’s greatest president, second only to Franklin D. Roosevelt, if it wasn’t for his actions related to Vietnam.
Harrelson said he “had a problem with the Vietnam issue” as well, but also called Johnson a “fascinating character.”
“At this time in his life, he suddenly had the mantle of power thrust upon him and he decided to use it for a good thing,” Harrelson said. “He knew that it was time to push forward the Civil Rights Act.”
The conversation eventually turned to race relations under the current adminstration, and Reiner didn’t hold back on his criticism of Donald Trump.
“There have been a lot of movies made about the civil rights movement, about race relations,” the filmmaker said, “but because of the situation we’re in now with the president we have, all of a sudden those issues have bubbled back up to the surface.”
Reiner went on to claim that Trump has given a “voice to a virulent strain of racism that has been in this country forever” with his divisive rhetoric. While the director remains hopeful that America can overcome its differences, he feels that the current political climate is akin to a Civil War battle.
“Now we are where we are and it becomes a very relevant discussion again,” Reiner said. “This is like the last battle of the Civil War. It seems like we’re still fighting that battle of the Civil War.”