SXSW 2023: The Lady Bird Diaries Movie Review

Credit: LBJ Library

The Lady Bird Diaries

SXSW Film Festival Documentary Spotlight Section

Reviewed for by Abe Friedtanzer

Director: Dawn Porter

Screened at: Rollins Theatre, Austin, TX, 3/14/23

Opens: March 10th, 2023 (World Premiere)

The role of the First Lady of the United States – and now the First Gentleman – is an interesting one because it involves being heavily in the public eye but doesn’t always come with specific diplomatic responsibilities. Yet the spouse of the person often referred to as the leader of the free world can have quite an impact, especially if their relationship with that spouse enables them to have a loudly-heard voice. One such example was Lady Bird Johnson, who was thrust into an unexpected situation when her husband became President and left a lasting legacy during her five years in the White House.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 put his Vice-President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, into a role that he didn’t plan to have. An archive of 123 hours of audio recordings from his wife, Lady Bird, offers tremendous insight into the early days of his presidency and how she was influential in pushing him towards certain things, memorably critiquing his performance during his first press conference. Lady Bird expresses her take on many different situations and palates, often being quite honest and transparent about her own worries and perspectives.

It’s very revealing to hear from Lady Bird directly and in her own voice. In only a few instances is she seen on screen with the audio synced to her mouth, and typically she serves as a background narrator of sorts, reflecting pensively on what she’s actively experiencing, which to audiences may feel like ancient history. She’s heard commenting on significant events and figures of the era, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. There is also a focus on the issue of civil rights in the South and the fission of the Democratic Party, with anecdotes about Lady Bird’s swift and dismissive response to hotel managers who refused service to her Black employees, prompting the entire group to find somewhere else to stay.

Director Dawn Porter, an established documentarian whose past projects include John Lewis: Good Trouble, crafts a narrative that often makes it feel like Lady Bird is being actively interviewed for the purposes of the film. It follows a chronological timeline, beginning with Lyndon being sworn in and proceeding through the 1964 election and then Lyndon’s decision not to run again in 1968. The two really do feel like a fitting pair, and Lady Bird’s voice and point of view is barely filtered by the chauvinism of the era, and it’s particularly refreshing to hear Lyndon give his wife credit for his accomplishments success on the campaign trail.

The Lady Bird Diaries is at the same time an archival document and a compelling documentary, assembling a small percentage of the many hours of available recordings released after Lady Bird’s death into something that tells a story. As with all recent history, those who lived through it will find helpful context and interesting discoveries, while those born since Lyndon left office have the opportunity for an entirely fresh education. Audiences will be able to make their own judgments about Lady Bird’s actions and life, treated to an informative and direct pipeline into her mindset.

100 minutes

Story: B+

Technical: B+

Overall: B+

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