NEW YORK (CNS) — Rarely has a civics lesson been as compelling — and entertaining — as that provided by “All the Way,” a new HBO historical drama about the epic civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

Bryan Cranston (best known for his celebrated turn as drug dealer Walter White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) offers a bravura performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson, reprising his role in Robert Schenkkan’s 2012 play for which he won a Tony in 2014. With the aid of makeup and a spot-on accent, Cranston disappears into the character, presenting Johnson as both saint and sinner.

Eager to transform society but just as obsessed with feathering his own political nest, Johnson is likewise preoccupied with dodging enemies, both within his own Democratic Party and among rival Republicans.

“Politics is war,” the president declares. “You’re not running for office. You’re running for your life.”

Directed by Jay Roach, working from Schenkkan’s screenplay, “All the Way” opens with the assassination of President John Kennedy in November 1963. This heinous act thrust Vice President Johnson into the White House — and the spotlight — but made him, for the time being at least, an “accidental” president.

Johnson is determined to continue Kennedy’s civil rights agenda, working with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie) to pass a landmark bill.

But Johnson’s motives are not entirely pure. Mercurial, cunning and drunk with power, Johnson’s main goal is to build support for his campaign in the 1964 presidential election. He’s quite willing to use Rev. King, but the minister has an agenda of his own.

“This president is gonna have to deliver,” Rev. King says. “And we’re going to hold his feet to the fire until he does.”

An epic battle of wills ensues, pitting Johnson against Rev. King on the one hand, and Johnson against congressional Southern Democrats opposed to the easing of segregation on the other. Their leader, conservative Georgia Sen. Richard Russell Jr. (Frank Langella), is Johnson’s close friend and mentor — but is soon to become his adversary.

Add to the mix principled Midwestern liberal Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford), sleazy FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root) and Johnson’s kindly spouse, Lady Bird (Melissa Leo), and the result is an acting tour de force.

Students of history know how the story ends. Those unfamiliar with the conflict may be shocked at the nasty infighting, grim violence, crude language and harsh racial epithets which characterized the intense debate.

Taken together, those elements suggest that “All the Way,” which is rated TV-14 — parents strongly cautioned, is best suited to mature adolescents and their elders. This intriguing lesson about the political process and the art of persuasion, which premiered May 21, will air several times daily through Tuesday, May 31, and at various times thereafter.


McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.