Going all the way

Most historians consider Lyndon B. Johnson one of American history's most colorful characters, yet he's rarely portrayed in film, at least in comparison with John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps that's because actors and writers are intimidated by the challenge of tackling such an over-the-top persona without him coming across like an old coot, yelling at aides to get off the White House lawn.

That Bryan Cranston so brilliantly maintains the 36th president's bluster in HBO's "All the Way" without ever turning him into a cartoon character is further proof that he's among our craftiest, most daring actors.

The scope of the two-hour film — the year following the assassination of President Kennedy — is limited; Cranston's performance is not. The "Breaking Bad" veteran covers the gamut: bullying senators from his toilet seat, fussing over Southern Dixiecrats, pouting about his political future like a child who didn't get a lollipop at the end of an Oval Office tour.

It doesn't hurt that the makeup department went into overtime, making its star almost indistinguishable from the real deal.

Cranston's performance is so riveting it makes other key players look like extras. Screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, who also penned the Tony-winning play of the same name, tries valiantly to broaden the story of the struggle for civil rights by shoehorning in story lines involving Anthony Mackie's Martin Luther King Jr. and Stephen Root's J. Edgar Hoover.

Fascinating figures in their own right, but every time the camera focuses on their trials and tribulations, you'll be counting the minutes before Cranston's LBJ is back in command.

7 p.m. Saturday, HBO

Neal Justin