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All The King's Men
Review written on: September 16th, 2006

All The King's Men Review

Remakes are a common occurrence in the film world today, usually of old action or heist movies (Ocean’s 11, The Italian Job, for instance), and usually mediocre at best. It is refreshing, then, to come across an ambitious, high-quality remake of a similarly ambitious, high-quality film, such as 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate. All the King’s Men, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren and therefore perhaps not exactly a remake, is another such, a dark, thought-provoking examination of the effect power has on individuals – not just on the individuals that hold power, but those around them, as well.

Loosely based on the life of Depression-era governor Huey Long, All the King’s Men studies the rise to power of Willie Stark, a self-styled hick who runs on a populist platform to win the governorship of Louisiana. Stark (Sean Penn) begins as an idealist, a political newcomer with nothing but naïveté and good intentions. Helping him are his (for lack of a better term) press agent Jack Burden (Jude Law), fat-cat Lieutenant Governor Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), and an apparently important woman named Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson), whose role in Stark’s rise – outside of being his lover – is never made clear. The reality of government, however, changes Stark dramatically: although he continues to do many things for the poor people of his state, he becomes increasingly dictatorial and ultimately becomes the same kind of politician that had caused him to run for governor in the first place.

All this is told through the eyes of the reporter-turned-press-agent Jack Burden, played by Jude Law; although the movie is about Stark, the protagonist is unquestionably Burden, as he grapples with the problems of Stark’s transformation and his own ever-more morally questionable role in the Stark administration. Law is good – very good, even, as is the rest of the cast – as Burden, especially as his passion for Stark’s do-gooding begins to fade into ambivalence. Also, a great deal of time is dedicated to Law’s youthful friendship with Dr. Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo), whom Stark tells him to enlist as the head of a new medical facility that he wishes to build for the people of Louisiana, as well as to his romance with Stanton’s beautiful sister Ann (Kate Winslet). Both Ruffalo and Winslet give strong performances in these crucial but relatively minor roles. Anthony Hopkins, as Judge Irwin, Burden’s godfather, is sublime as always, but though a great deal is said about his character he really has too little screen time to provide the movie with a substantial lift.

Both Clarkson and Gandolfini are very good in their roles as well. Gandolfini’s Tiny Duffy especially reeks with sleaze and slime, perhaps a caricature of the parasitic politician but an entertaining caricature nonetheless. I also appreciated Clarkson as Sadie Burke, but I was distracted whenever I saw her because I had to wonder what purpose, if any, her character was supposed to serve.

Sean Penn, however, is the beginning and end of the book on acting for All the King’s Men. Although he has the star power that throughout the film you know you’re watching Sean Penn, his Willie Stark is almost flawless, from the Louisiana accent that he affects to the furious gesticulations of his speeches to his facial expressions. He succeeds in making Stark, even as he reaches the pinnacle of his transformation, a surprisingly sympathetic character, and, perhaps more impressive, he makes that transformation not only believable but chillingly likely.

Steven Zaillian’s direction is spotty, at times – notably during the portrayal of Stark’s rural gubernatorial campaign – almost poetic, at times stumbling or melodramatic (including an unutterably cringeworthy visual metaphor in the final minutes of the movie). Fortunately, it is for the most part no worse than competent, and often better than that; but it does not match the caliber of the acting, and it will never be said that Zaillian is a virtuoso in any sense of the word.

Like several of the movies I’ve reviewed here, the great flaw of All the King’s Men has to do with its script: despite the film’s length (almost two and a half hours), it still feels rushed; some characters (notably Sadie and Judge Irwin) and plotlines (Burden’s relationship to the Judge, among others) are developed insufficiently or not at all. It is hard to place blame on this on any individual’s shoulders, however, when one recognizes that it is from a 656-page novel. Yet as an academic comparison it is interesting to note that a large part of the success of The Illusionist, based on a short story, comes from its excellent pacing, where most of the flaws of All the King’s Men, based on a novel, come from the inability to develop certain aspects of the plot in the name of a manageable length. The other thing to be said of All the King’s Men – and it seems a small flaw, but created a great deal of frustration for me – was that the Southern accents were in fact too good. There were times that I could not understand what people were saying because of the accents that they were affecting.

To be honest, the problems of All the King’s Men are negligible, and do not take anything away from the fact that it is a fine piece of cinema. No, I was not viscerally and intellectually blown away by it or any component part, but the acting is excellent and the movie is very good, and one that I strongly recommend.

 

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