The current remake of All The King’s Men is, like the 1949 original, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren, itself based on the life of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. Fictional Governor Willie Stark, played by Sean Penn, stomps around the screen, a compact populist thug with his fist in the air. If you’ve seen one movie about a great man toppled by his excesses – or if you lived in America during the Clinton years – you’ve seen them all. The filmmakers know this, and have shifted the focus. You barely even glimpse Willie’s wife and many mistresses.
The point of view is instead situated with a man named Jack Burden, whose name implies his listlessness. Burden is a newspaper man chronicling Willie’s rise who quits to work for him full time. He is a black sheep from a rich family, whose mother looms large in his psyche. Jude Law, whose lack of charisma usually hamstrings him, has no problem with pretty, cynical, and privileged. Like many men with a weak sense of self, Burden is attracted to men with an excess of it. "You stay with me because you’re the way you are, and I’m the way I am," Willie tells him. "That’s just an arrangement founded in the natural order of things."
The great man himself, Willie Stark, begins public life as a county treasurer too honest to take a bribe. When the graft he resisted gets three children killed, and is exposed, Willie is approached by the Louisiana political machine. His first political act is to keep his face blank when they say he could be Governor.
But Willie is supposed to split the vote and lose. When he figures this out, he channels his rage into stentorian speeches declaiming the oil companies and the old guard. They are bleeding the "hicks," as he calls his ever-larger crowds, meaning him, too. He’s gonna "nail ‘em up". You can almost hear the knives sharpening in the dark.
There’s a wonderful duel between Willie and a retired-but-influential judge who wants him impeached, played by Anthony Hopkins – a battle of egos and moral philosophies that should have been the meat of the film. Instead, too much time is spent on a subplot concerning Jack Burden and the Judge’s two grown children. Jude Law is too asexual to connect with Kate Winslett, and Mark Ruffalo is just stranded. The writer/director, Steve Zaillian, is a screenwriter first; he must have become enraptured of the novel’s layers, and couldn’t resist adding another wrinkle.
Most American critics disliked the film, finding it too broad and vague; I think it’s stately. Maybe Willie’s just not a bad enough for them. If the worst that can be said about him is that he was a bully and a letch, then he was great while he lasted. Hell, I’d have voted for him.
All The King’s Men is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast by going to wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.