- Reading [Taylor] Branch’s account of that period, it is revealing how distracted Johnson was by Vietnam. In the days when the scenes of violence in Alabama should have been his focus, he was in endless meetings with Robert McNamara about a secret order to begin a bombing campaign. “It was this crisis that had shortened his patience for King’s visit from Selma,” Branch writes. There is not much mention of Vietnam in “Selma”; in this, the filmmakers did Johnson a kindness.
If DuVernay’s goal was really to turn LBJ from the co-hero of the movement into the villain, as many affronted LBJ supporters claimed, surely Vietnam would have been the way to go. All she had to do was honestly depict those McNamara meetings. And of course including Vietnam would have been dramatic: Death! Explosions! Great betrayals! Tragic downfalls!
Instead, her Johnson says that he can’t do what King wants because he’s rather use his political capital on his War on Poverty. In a great use of objects to physicalize the plot, he’s actually got his plan in a leather folder and tries to hand it to King but King refuses to accept it and forces Johnson to put it down, literally and figuratively.
DuVernay (and/or credited writer Paul Webb) knows that great drama comes from choosing between goods, not from choosing between good and evil (as would have been the case in a choice between voting rights and Vietnam). Good vs. evil is a no-brainer with a pat solution, but good vs. good is an anguishing choice. Ultimately, of course, we know that Johnson brilliantly pushed through both the War on Poverty and voting rights, but in the movie, it’s a tough call that’s left unresolved, which is always good with a thematic conflict. We like it when a story tips towards one side of a thematic conflict but leaves the question open and not fully resolved. That makes a story meaty.