Review by Joseph Fayed
Claudia Alta Johnson, better known as "Lady Bird," was First Lady of the United States from 1963 to 1969. These years are explored in Dawn Porter's new documentary The Lady Bird Diaries. Told firsthand by Lady Bird herself, the documentary is very poignant at times, but falls far from being groundbreaking in any way.
Lady Bird Johnson recorded over 100 hours worth of audio passages while she was First Lady. Many of these recordings have not been made public until now. Combined with archive footage and photographs, the documentary pulls back the curtain on the woman caught in the midst of one of the most tumultuous eras in American history.
This intimate approach should be attempted by more documentaries, especially those where the subjects are deceased. The lack of talking heads featured grips you in because it feels you have access to Lady Bird reading her own diary or something similar. Lady Bird herself kept a well crafted image throughout her life, and that remains true in her speech. There is no mic drop moment spoken by her, yet she doesn't shy away from sharing her emotions she — and many other women — are often told to refrain from showcasing.
One complaint is that it felt like there were noticeable gaps in the timeline Lady Bird was in the White House. While still covering crucial events, the years of 1964-67 are placed on the back burner, while the beginning and end of LBJ's presidency are highlighted. There still is enough to cover in 110 minutes, notably the Vietnam War, which decreased LBJ's popularity in the polls significantly. The most interesting parts of the film were hearing what Lady Bird thought of war protestors. Here, she is no longer in her husband's shadow, but in the spotlight when asked about Vietnam. She and her husband met great resistance during this period, such as when Eartha Kitt famously questioned the two at a White House luncheon. Ultimately, Porter expresses through the recordings that being vocal is the best way to fight for what you believe is right. Lady Bird, however, was pressured to do the opposite in her position.
The Lady Bird Diaries captures textbook history on the era of the Johnsons, and how they went from heavily favored to the masses turning on them. There's no new intel presented on why they lost a second term. What we do get is a closer look at someone who wasn't expected to address the nation every day, but was expected to be as polished and prepared as any politician. While she didn't have the same powers her husband had, Lady Bird had her own moral convictions, which she stood by through it all.
The Lady Bird Diaries is now streaming on Hulu.