The History Place - Movie Review

All The King's Men

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

This remake of the 1949 classic should have been a repeat by Sean Penn of Broderick Crawford's best-actor performance in the original film. Penn is a better actor than Crawford ever was. As the force of nature known as Willie Stark, Penn certainly has his powerful moments. Unfortunately, on balance, his performance is single-dimensional. The complex character, created by Robert Penn Warren in his Pulitzer-Prize winning 1946 novel, never emerges in this 2006 reprise of the best picture of '49.

The epic account of the self-described "hick," who rises from obscurity to capture the Louisiana governor's mansion thanks to a landslide rural vote, was based on the real-life saga of Huey Long. Penn captures Long's unforgettable stumping style--the windmill arms, the high-pitched voice haranguing the crowd just shy of an actual scream. The fault lies not in Penn's performance, but in a script which leaves more unsaid than stated. If I hadn't already read the novel and seen the '49 flick, I wouldn't have been able to follow along at times.

Jude Law plays Jack Burden, the old-money newspaperman who betrays his class and his calling to serve Stark. Burden narrates the book and the film. Sadly, his film narration is packed with platitudes, while offering little help to the occasionally-baffled audience. Motive is another problem director/writer Steven Zaillian (A Civil Action) has with his rendition of Burden. As the name suggests, Jack carries the weight of a corrupt Louisiana upper class on his narrow shoulders. Perhaps that's reason enough to explain his relentless decline to the status of Judas goat. However, frequent flashbacks to a seemingly idyllic childhood, peopled by the very friends and relatives he helps destroy, belie this interpretation.

Equally unfathomable is the decision of Burden's childhood sweetheart, played by Kate Winslet, to become one of Stark's many women. All that one can conclude is that Willie Stark is a flame--an energy field at once both more and less than human. The moths all appear powerless in his incandescent presence. They circle languidly, then drop and are incinerated.

Most baffling of all is Burden's relentless investigation of "the judge," played by Anthony Hopkins. Flashbacks depict His Honor initiating Jack into the world of moneyed manhood, Louisiana style. We see them duck hunting, as Burden tells us the judge was more of a father than his mother's first of four husbands ever was. We know Burden has backbone, because he quits his newspaper job, when the editor pressures him to write less during the campaign about the upstart Stark and more about the paper's choice in the governor's race.

Yet when Willie, quickly, if inexplicably, corrupted by power after winning the election, prods Burden to "get something on the judge," Jack doggedly investigates his old mentor's past. Each time he reveals his languid reluctance, Stark coldly sets his hook a little deeper, and Jack pushes onward, until he has the "something" Willie wants. By the time the movie ends in a predictable pool of blood, Jack's burden of guilt must be absolutely crushing.

At the risk of feeling guilty myself about being so hard on a film that features a fantastic cast and strives to grapple with the great historic themes of power and corruption, I have one more complaint. Zaillian lifts the epic out of the Great Depression, where Long/Stark was right at home--a Populist fighting for impoverished agrarians. He plops his plot down in the 1950s. When we remember that the early '50s were the halcyon days of Martin Luther King, the Birmingham bus boycott, and Brown v. Board of Education, Willie Stark strikes us as an anachronism--a character caught in a time warp. No wonder he can't break out of his bombastic straight-jacket and find a second and a third dimension.

Bottom line: I recommend renting the 1949 Broderick Crawford rendition of All The King's Men. If you incline toward double features, you might also rent Ken Burn's bio of Huey Long, part of Burns' PBS American Stories series. Your money will be better spent than by buying a ticket for the new film.

Rated PG 13 - For scenes of violence amd sexual content.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

All The King's Men - Official Website
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