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All the King's Men (2006)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 22 September 2006

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Film Rating:
2.5
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As the twentieth century recedes into the past, many who were extremely famous (some notorious) are being forgotten, left behind in the gathering dust of history. One of these is Huey P. Long, the intense, complex politician from Louisiana. He served as governor of the state, then senator. He was a devout populist, focusing squarely on what he saw (correctly) as his constituency—the “hicks” of his home state. He demanded free textbooks for all school children, he began one of the best universities in the country, he increased the paved road mileage from 300 to 1200, he built 111 bridges. He battled big oil (mostly Standard) and other moneyed interests. And his administrations were rife with graft and corruption. When he won elections, he won them big. He helped get the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. As he was making plans to replace Franklin D. Roosevelt (whom he first supported, then rebelled against) as President in the 1940 elections, in 1935 Long was gunned down in the Louisiana capitol building he constructed.

He was an amazingly colorful and vigorous politician, one of the first to extensively use radio to promote himself and his ideas, flooding the state with pamphlets, and tirelessly traveling everywhere in Louisiana to sell his ideas in person. He wrote books, he wrote songs, he called himself the Kingfish. After his death, FDR privately admitted that some of his most radical—and effective—New Deal ideas were adaptations of Long’s. (Russell Long was Huey’s son.)

Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitizer Prize for his 1946 novel “All the King’s Men.” Wikipedia reports that Penn denied that it was based on Huey P. Long, but that’s hard to believe. It’s about Willie Stark, a Louisiana politician who wins the trust of the middle and lower classes through his populist beliefs, who becomes corrupt and who is gunned down (by a doctor, as in real life) in the state capitol building.

Robert Rossen turned the novel into a movie in 1949, with Broderick Crawford in the role of his career as Willie Stark; he won the Best Actor Oscar, while in her movie debut, Mercedes McCambridge won Best Supporting Actress, and the film itself won Best Picture. It’s still a riveting, believable movie, available on DVD, great fun to watch. There was a TV version in the 1950s, with Neville Brand as Willie.

Whatever Steve Zaillian’s new version is, it’s not fun. This handsomely produced, internationally financed movie is very serious, even grim, but it never seizes the imagination the way the old one did. Sean Penn is miscast as Willie Stark. Willie has to clearly be a man of the people, much like those he pitches his ideas to, but Penn is closed off (but hardly reined in), never seeming part of the landscape the way Crawford did. (Zaillian claims never to have seen the original movie.)

Also, Penn plays most of the film with one expression: taut, forehead-wrinkled intensity, as if he just smelled something really bad and is pretending he didn’t. There’s no lightness or humor to his portrayal, and there should have been. Rossen’s movie was partly a tragedy. At the beginning, it’s obvious that Stark is a decent man who holds firmly to principles intended to benefit the working class, who at first fails to understand that the moneyed class is using him. When he wises up, he also becomes corrupt and dictatorial. (Huey P. Long eventually initiated a special state police force answerable only to him. He’s often been described as the closest thing to a fascist leader the U.S. has ever produced.)

There are elements of tragedy in Rossen and Crawford’s portrayal of Willie Stark—we soon dislike him, but we also see that he had elements of greatness that were washed away by almost Shakespearian hubris. There are no elements of tragedy to Penn’s portrayal of Willie. Yes, he’s sincere at first, but when he “gets smart,” we don’t think he’s lost anything at all—that he was probably something of a rotter all along. Unlike Crawford, you never like Sean Penn’s Willie, and you’re eager to see him get his comeuppance.

The story is told by Jack Burden (Jude Law, with an impeccable Southern accent), a journalist who first reports on this newcomer Stark, and eventually works for him—but never likes him. He’s just fascinated by the relative ease and vigor with which Willie ceases power. But eventually it becomes personal. Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins, good but not attempting a Southern accent) essentially raised Jack; he’s a decent, well-respected public figure who at first almost endorses Stark, but then turns against him. When the possibility of impeachment is raised in the state senate, Stark needs Irwin’s approval and uses Jack in an effort to get it.

Lucy (Talia Balsam), Willie’s devoted wife, hardly figures into the story at all. Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson) is a go-getter political arranger with whom Stark has an affair—although we never see them in anything like a romantic situation. More time is spent on Jack mooning over Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), who’s related to Judge Irwin, and whose brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo) was one of Jack’s best friends. The story’s more melodramatic side takes off when Willie starts romancing Anne (off screen).

It should be obvious why this movie was made—there are elements in national politics that probably called this novel to Zaillian’s attention. But while he’s an able screenwriter, he has lost some of the energy of the original movie—which maybe he SHOULD have seen. His screenplays are usually literate and intelligent, but they also tend to be didactic and obvious—consider “Awakenings,” “Searching for Bobby Fisher,” “A Civil Action,” “Gangs of New York.”

As a director, he’s skilled with actors, but not always with other elements. Why does Stark’s car twice pass groups of three roadside crosses? Did they do that in the 1940s (when the film is set)? What are they intended to convey? That three people will die? That Stark will die? That he’s the angel of death? Crosses are very potent symbols—but the wielder of the symbols needs to make their application very clear. When he’s still idealistic, Stark drinks orange soda pop with two straws in the bottle—an indication not just of his naiveté, but his embracing of naiveté. When he starts guzzling booze, he’s wised up, a newborn cynic, though he’d call himself a realist. This may come directly from the novel, but it’s forced and obvious.

The movie’s period causes problems. For one thing, though they’re occasionally referred to, black people are rarely seen. For another, this would have to be taking place right after World War II (it ends in 1954, so why do we see dial phones but no TVs?)—but there’s not a single mention of or allusion to the war, even though in reality it still dominated public perceptions. Stark’s bodyguard Sugar Boy (a gaunt, creepy Jackie Earle Haley) is constantly cleaning his pistol and shooting at practice targets—but surely we didn’t need such an obvious harbinger of events to come.

The real Huey P. Long and Broderick Crawford’s Willie Stark directly addressed the lower classes, but there’s very little hint of class consciousness in this new movie. Only James Gandolfini, as Tiny Duffy, a New Orleans political boss, gives any sense of coming from a different class than, say, Jack Burden. When Willie realizes Tiny has played him for a fool, he extemporizes a speech at a county fair, and draws the common people to him by what he says—that they’re hicks and so is he, and only a hick can understand other hicks. This is followed by a montage of Willie’s speeches—but we never again get a sense of what is drawing the heretofore disenfranchised to him. Race, the war and class—all scrubbed from the movie, but at a loss, a diminishing of effect.

Sean Penn is usually very good, but here he’s trying too hard. It’s likely that he intensely scrutinized newsreels of Huey P. Long—there has to be SOME explanation for his almost frenetic and nearly constant hand gestures while giving speeches. It becomes tiresome very quickly—but Huey Long clearly didn’t. We should welcome Willie’s speeches, his freewheeling intensity, but Penn’s own intensity, his focus on the “reality” of his role reduces his effectiveness—and reality. It’s all too clearly a performance—but Penn’s performance, not Willie Stark’s.

This isn’t really about Huey P. Long, of course; it’s not detailed enough, it’s in the wrong period and, of course, is not historically accurate in general. But at one point, Willie is seen in a recording studio, cutting a record—“Every Man a King,” which was actually co-written by Huey P. Long. That was his favorite political catch phrase, borrowed from one of his own political idols, William Jennings Bryan. I suppose Zaillian included it to suggest that this may really be about Long, but it’s intrusive.

The movie is intelligent, well-written and largely well acted—Jude Law is particularly good—and lord knows movies about politics are timely today. But it’s unconvincing with a miscast lead role, a laudable but unsuccessful effort.
Studio Columbia
Starring Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Jackie Earle Haley
Director Steve Zaillian
MPAA Rating PG-13
Running Time 120 mins.







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