Revealing a tragic 'Path' for LBJ

He couldn't win in Vietnam because he wasn't ruthless enough, an HBO film asserts

In 1962, director John Frankenheimer came out with one of the best conspiracy-theory films ever, "The Manchurian Candidate." "The X-Files" owes a lot to its labyrinthine plot and psychological horror. But what Frankenheimer has directed in HBO's "Path to War" (May 18, 8-10:45 p.m., repeating through the month) is far more tragic – and relevant.

This is the story of the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. It is based on extensive research into memoirs and documents recently declassified and made public. It begins in 1965 and ends with his famous "peace" speech, in which he announced that he would not seek or accept the nomination of his party for the next election.

A political opinion is at work behind the story, no doubt. But the significance of the film may lie much more in depicting how a man of extraordinary political savvy, who saw to it that massive domestic legislation passed that still benefits students and the poor today, could be brought low by popular dissent.

The film makes the case that LBJ could not win the Vietnam conflict because he was not willing to be utterly ruthless – and that he was led into the conflict because he listened to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and other holdovers from the Kennedy administration.

The film is dense with political arguments, beautifully shot and directed, and brilliantly cast with the likes of British actor Michael Gambon (sporting an imperfect Texas accent) as LBJ, Donald Sutherland as special adviser Clark Clifford, and Alec Baldwin as McNamara.

Gambon ("Gosford Park," "Sleepy Hollow") is one of the great actors of our time. In him, we find a complex portrait of a man who wanted his legacy to be the "Great Society," but who was undone by a war he never believed in.

If the story has any flaw, it is that it tries to fit in too much information. Maybe it should have been a miniseries.

But what matters is that we gain a greater understanding of the burdens of power, as well as its privileges. We are left with greater compassion for the man and greater understanding of the statesman and his era.

"Working with John Frankenheimer was a dream come true," says writer Daniel Giat. "His 'Seven Days in May' [a 1964 political thriller about an attempted military takeover of the United States] had always inspired me – it told me that a drama set in the halls of power in Washington could be as exciting as any action thriller."

Mr. Giat started working on this script 11 years ago when a series of articles by Mr. Clifford appeared in The New Yorker – excerpts from his about-to-be-published memoir called "Counsel to the President."

These articles dealt with the escalation of the Vietnam War in the summer of 1965 and the small block of opposition led by Undersecretary of State George Ball. Mr. Ball prophesied that a war in Vietnam was unwinnable.

Eventually, HBO put up the money for primary research – and it was among the tapes of Johnson's phone calls that Giat discovered how anguished the president had actually been about the war.

"He was terribly conflicted about it, and so desperate to get out that he became despondent," Giat says. "I think it will come as a revelation to the public...."

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