– Any doubts that Bryan Cranston belongs on the shortlist of America’s greatest living actors are vanquished in an early moment from “All the Way.” The HBO biopic chronicles the chaos thrust upon — and generated by — Lyndon Baines Johnson in the period between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his own election as president in 1964.

In the scene, the newly minted commander in chief is being tailored for a suit in the Oval Office while talking turkey with Minnesota’s Sen. Hubert Humphrey, cracking vulgar jokes with his aides, kissing up to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, cooing over the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., barking orders to his staff and firing a secretary on impulse, insisting her replacement have a “little meat on her bones.”

It’s a tour de force performance, one that may very well lead to an Emmy to place beside the four Cranston earned for “Breaking Bad.” It also has the benefit of being accurate.

“If you asked any of the individuals who worked with Johnson over the years, they would say something like, ‘He was the kindest, cruelest, most selfless, selfish son of a bitch, warmhearted, conniving, lying, decent man I ever met,’ ” said screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, who also wrote the play that bears the same title. “They wouldn’t be lying.

Schenkkan and Cranston earned Tonys in 2014 for their stage collaboration, and it would have been as tempting as lifting a beagle by its droopy ears to simply re-create the heralded production.

Instead, with the prompting of director Jay Roach and producer Steven Spielberg, the movie takes full advantage of a more intimate medium, cutting out numerous phone conversations and monologues, while zooming in on emotionally wrenching moments, such as the one in the middle of the Democratic National Convention when a vulnerable LBJ, convinced that the world is plotting against him, curls up in his hotel bed like a child who accidentally saw too much of “Rosemary’s Baby.”

“Steven said there was an opportunity with the camera to be in these most desperate places with Johnson where there was no hope, those moments of a personal meltdown,” said Roach, who had just finished directing Cranston to an Oscar nomination in “Trumbo” before taking on his third film for HBO. “Steven said, ‘Commit to those quiet moments. Just make sure they are cinematic.’ I thought that was great advice.”

Cranston also had to prepare for his close-ups.

On stage, the actor took a minimalist approach in the dressing room, applying his own makeup and mixing a bit of gray dye into his slicked-back hair. For the film, he spent 2½ hours in the makeup chair every day, having prosthetics glued onto his ears and adding lifts to his shoes. The results make him almost indistinguishable from the black-and-white stills of the actual Johnson displayed during the closing credits.

“Fortunately my own natural physical makeup is what every man searches for: beady eyes and thin lips,” Cranston said, who added that the extensive cosmetic work informed his performance. “It helped me stay in character throughout the more logistical issues of making a movie and moving from scene to scene.”

Cranston’s cabinet

In addition to the makeup department, led by Bill Corso, Cranston got able support from a stellar cast, which includes Bradley Whitford, who has Humphrey’s nervous energy and clipped delivery down pat, and Anthony Mackie, who imagines King with a James Bond brand of cool.

Cranston also relied heavily on research, poring over the daunting stacks of books on his subject and spending two long nights locked inside the LBJ Presidential Library, searching for the key to unlock the man. It was during his second visit that he found it.

“There in the corner, right past the assassination display, was something I missed the first time,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of light on it. It was a letter from Jackie [Kennedy] to LBJ dated four days after the assassination. It said, ‘Dear Mr. President, I want to thank you for writing these lovely letters to my two children about their father and how much you loved and respected him. They don’t know it now, but they will appreciate it in the future.’

Cranston continued: “So within days of taking on the most pressure-packed job in the world, this man sat down and wrote to two children when he had all these things that he needed to pay attention to. That spoke to me.”

The true LBJ

Of course, every moment of tenderness in the biopic is countered by a slap across the face. At one moment, the president is fawning over his most trustworthy aide, calling him the son he never had. When the aide is arrested for lewd behavior in a men’s restroom just days before the election, Johnson abandons him, insisting that he’s been stabbed in the back.

Historians will argue for centuries to come just how big a heart Johnson truly had for Kennedy, his loyal posse and the civil rights movement. Did he truly believe in a Great Society or did he just want to win, win, win? After watching Cranston’s performance, you’ll swear the answer is both.

“I feel like a lot of times where actors fail is when we read a script and we’re like, ‘Oh, he’s a bad guy because of this’ or ‘He’s wrong because he did this,’ ” said Mackie, best known as Falcon in the “Captain America” movies. “What makes Bryan’s performance so powerful and so great is that there’s no judgment. It’s him just presenting Lyndon. You rarely get to see that. It’s enjoyable.” 

Njustin@startribune.com

612-673-7431 @nealjustin