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(Austin Texas’ South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival runs March 10-19. Stay tuned to Hammer to Nail for our usual great coverage like this movie review of The Lady Bird Diaries. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

As much as I love documentaries and celebrate our current age of access to nonfiction storytelling via the streamingverse, many of them follow an overly familiar format of talking-head interviews supplemented by archival and/or observational footage. While there is no shortage of archival in The Lady Bird Diaries, the latest from director Dawn Porter (The Way I See It), the lack of formal, present-day experts speaking to the history is here a refreshing plus. Instead, we get the primary source material of Claudia Johnson (née Taylor), aka “Lady Bird,” talking to us from the 1960s White House courtesy of the audio diaries she recorded at the time. Some others join her in the soundscape, but it’s her show, and a delightful one at that.

Porter begins with the tragic events in Dallas on November 22, 1963, that propelled Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) into the presidency. Given how often the film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination has been viewed over the years, it’s good that we don’t dwell on it, instead jumping off immediately into Lady Bird’s recollections of feelings and thoughts in the moment. The result is a welcome personal perspective on familiar events.

From there, we travel through LBJ’s tenure as commander-in-chief, a role he took on with great reluctance. Never happy with the task of sending young men to die in Vietnam, he nevertheless plunged the nation further and further into the war, a fact that would eventually lead to his decision not to run for reelection in 1968. It turns out he also considered not running in 1964. Lady Bird talks frequently about his bouts with depression, kept hidden from the public at the time.

She proves a sharp, insightful commentator on politics, the environment (her signature issue), interpersonal communication, and more. A close partner to her husband, she is consistently poetic in the way she describes, both to him and to herself, the issues at hand. Porter complements Lady Bird’s voice with evocative onscreen animations and intertitles.

The Lady Bird Diaries reminds us at every turn how much the Johnson administration accomplished in the arena of Civil Rights, despite the quagmire of, and American atrocities in, Vietnam. First there was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and then the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first Black Supreme Court Justice, to name just a few impressive deeds. But any presidency is about the sum total of everything, and by the time LBJ gave up the office, he was a controversial figure for many.

But also a family man. Lady Bird describes his joy at both seeing his daughters marry and becoming a grandfather. Always, she provides wonderful insights into these family details, side by side with those of global and national import. It’s a great way to describe the movie, too. Mixing specific intimacies with universal truths, The Lady Bird Diaries helps revitalize a well-trafficked history and genre, to the great joy of the viewer.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2023 SXSW Film Festival; Dawn Porter; The Lady Bird Diaries documentary movie review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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