All the King's Men Review

How should a society that values democracy and capitalism best balance the interests of big business and of the "little people"?

This is the question that kept popping up in my mind during the press screening of All The King's Men, the mesmerizing new film adaptation from director Steven Zaillian of Robert Penn Warren's 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, with a memorable performance by Sean Penn as the fictional Louisiana governor Willie Stark. If the movie's title sounds a bit familiar, that's probably because it was previously filmed in 1949, and that adaptation won the Oscar for Best Picture, together with a Best Actor Oscar for Broderick Crawford, also playing Willie Stark. Although the source novel was written 60 years ago, many of the questions it raises are as relevant today as they've ever been - perhaps more so.

Now, this is a movie review, and not a political op-ed piece, but as much as I'd like to focus on the filmmaking rather than the movie's political message, I can't help but have a feeling that viewers' reactions may in part be influenced by their political preferences.

Not only does All the King's Men star a talented actor widely regarded as a prominent liberal; the film's credits also include James Carville as an executive producer. Aside from his appearances on talk shows, Carville is perhaps best remembered for his appearance in The War Room, a documentary about the successful political campaign that culminated in the election of Bill Clinton. Does this mean this movie will likely be more enjoyable for liberal filmgoers than for conservatives? Well, possibly. It's also clear from internet postings, such as those on IMDb.com, that some people will attack or avoid the movie simply because they don't like Penn's political opinions.

And I think that's a shame, because the issues raised by the movie are definitely important in any nation that values both democracy and a capitalist society. Not only that, but Penn gives a galvanizing, larger-than-life performance, the likes of which have seldom been seen since Hollywood's golden years. Doubtless some will say Penn's performance here is so over-the-top, it borders on cartoonish. But the same could be said of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd or even Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia the performance is effective because it suggest the extent to which the characters' own ego drives their flamboyant behavior.

All the King's Men, tells the story, loosely based on the life of Huey Long, of the meteoric political rise of a simple rural man with a gift for passionate, populist speeches in which he promises the working people to carry out the redistribution of wealth in the oil-rich state, if he is elected governor. Stark's story is told mostly through the eyes of an idealist young journalist-turned-political aide, Jack Burden (Jude Law), and it seeks to examine the ways in which power can corrupt, and also the extent to which big and powerful interests are willing to go when their interests are threatened.

Faster than you can say "Bill Clinton," Stark's good intentions are overshadowed by political scandal and the threat of an impeachment. While Stark's flaws are in plain view, the movie also seems to suggest that the establishment will always fight back whenever a popular politician threatens the interests of Big Business.

The sterling cast also includes Kate Winslet as Anne Stanton, daughter of the late Gov. Stanton; Mark Ruffalo as her brother Adam; James Gandolfini as slick political operative Tiny Duffy; Patricia Clarkson as Stark's press aide; and Anthony Hopkins as Judge Irwin, Willie Stark's political nemesis.

Sure enough, many of the film's critics will mercilessly ridicule the accents being slightly less than convincing, with the efforts by three British actors to speak in a Southern accent yielding mixed results. Hopkins in particular "sounds as though he's from Louisiana by way of Wales and London," quipped Variety's Todd McCarthy.

Another artistic decision on the part of the filmmakers, to transpose the story to the 1950s from the 1930s, has also been criticized, claiming that the story belongs firmly in the era of the Great Depression. (The production notes tell us that director Zaillian "felt that any period before World War II seemed less contemporary and more 'nostalgic'".)

These quibbles shouldn't really keep the average filmgoer from enjoying all that this film has to offer, and the way in which the story refrains from easy moralizing or demonizing, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about the message of All the King's Men, and how the issues it presents in a fictional tale, may still be valid in modern politics. Keeping in mind that much of the criticism aimed at the movie in the coming weeks might say more about the political leanings of the critics than about the film itself, All the King's Men is one of the best films of the year, and many viewers will no doubt be left with the feeling that Penn deserves another Oscar for his performance here.

"All the King's Men" opens September 22, 2006 and is rated PG13. Drama. Written and directed by Steven Zaillian. Starring Jackie Earle Haley, James Gandolfini, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Kathy Baker, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, Sean Penn.



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