Path to War is a 2002 HBO television film and the last work of its director, John Frankenheimer. It stars Michael Gambon as President Lyndon Johnson, Alec Baldwin as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Donald Sutherland as presidential advisor Clark Clifford, who succeeded McNamara as Secretary of Defense.
1965: Following the largest electoral landslide in U.S history, LBJ is confirmed as the President of the United States, and he has big plans for the country. "The Great Society". A chance to make the land that all Americans dream of. Healthcare, education, welfare and civil rights reforms. He and his cabinet intend to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. But the drums of war are beating in South-East Asia...
As The Vietnam War escalates far beyond the proposed estimates of his cabinet and generals, LBJ finds himself leading a country that is torn apart by the escalation of the war and the requirements needed to win.
The film dramatizes the tragedy of a President who went along with the plan and the best experts he had, for a war he really did not want, and was ultimately destroyed by it.
This Movie provides examples of:
- The Chess Master: LBJ successfully plays his hands that he used to play when he was master of the Senate. A subplot focuses on his efforts to pass the Voting Rights Act and confronting George Wallace's treatment of Civil Rights activists in Alabama using the famous "Johnson Treatment." Unfortunately power slips away when he finds opposition to the Vietnam War increase.
- Foil: McNamara and Clifford serve this function for each other. McNamara starts out as a gung-ho advocate of military escalation only to find himself frustrated by America's inability to win the war and horrified over its human cost. Clifford, on the other hand, speaks out against the war when first brought into Johnson's inner circle but becomes more and more outspoken in his defense of Johnson's policy, to the point he replaced McNamara as Defense Secretary. In Clifford's case though, he never seems particularly convinced of the war's necessity but rather advocates the President's positions out of loyalty.
- Honest Advisor: Clark Clifford is an old friend of Lyndon's and he brings him on board to help disseminate all the information that he is enveloped with regarding Vietnam.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: LBJ is a crass, sensitive egomaniac who also genuinely wants to help improve the United States.
- Lonely at the Top: LBJ. By 1967 most of His reforms will never see the light the day. He sits alone in the Oval office in the dark. Only the sound of thousands of angry protesters outside.
- Only Sane Man: George Ball, Undersecretary of State who attempts to draw the president's attention to the failure of the French in holding Vietnam.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Ball feels ultimately betrayed when Clifford switches to supporting the war.