The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - All the King's Men

Full review behind the jump

All the King’s Men

: Steven Zaillian
: Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren
: Ken Lemberger, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Steven Zaillian
: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Jackie Earle Haley, Kathy Baker

All the King’s Men, the only place you’ll see the name of Huey Long, the radical populist who became both Governor of and Senator from the state of Louisiana during the Great Depression, and was once labeled one of the two most dangerous men in America by FDR, is, of all places, in the songwriting credits. He is the co-writer of Every Man a King, a campaign anthem that defined his vision for America, and is sung here by governor Willie Stark (Sean Penn).

Stark, unlike Long, is a fictional character, and Long is never explicitly named as an inspiration, but readers of Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, and viewers of the Oscar-winning 1949 film adaptation, certainly recognized what the story was getting at. The tragedy defined by
All the King’s Men is that it is either about a man who fought as hard and viciously as was necessary to provide for the poorest in society, and succeeded before being cut down by the institution he challenged; or it is about a reckless revolutionary who, if he had not been so corruptible and prone to making enemies, could have become America’s Hitler.

Just how fine it is possible for that distinction to be is agonizing, and this handsome adaptation by Steven Zaillian (who adapted
Schindler’s List and adapted/directed the underappreciated Searching for Bobby Fischer), zeroes quite effectively in on that as the perilous undercurrent that puts an electric charge in every action Stark takes. He could be investing in a better tomorrow, or he could be driving the body politic off a cliff, there was simply no way of knowing in the crackle of the moment. Sadly the film does not decide conclusively if it wants to be a dark and stately epic on these Shakespearean themes, or an intimate exploration of one man’s descent from disillusionment to deeper disillusionment. And with so much story to tell, that indecision allows things to slip by us.

It is absolutely a demonstration of Zaillian’s storytelling gifts, the movie has a nearly-blinding speed and confidence in laying out its tangled web of blood and family, old wounds and new sins. It is about so much more than Willie Stark, fits all of it into a package that runs just over two hours, yet still has time left over to dawdle in the melodramatic narration of Jack Burden (Jude Law). Burden is our lens into the movie, a reporter who meets Stark as a small-town city official unsuccessfully trying to expose corruption in city contracts.

Why he makes such an admiring attachment to Stark, eventually leaving his career to become part of his political entourage, has something to do with how little he’s ever done about the corruption he himself has seen, and also something to do with resentment of his rich mother (Kathy Baker) and her habit of marrying her way around Southern upper society.

When terrible tragedy shines a spotlight on Stark’s crusade, some fixers from the state’s political machine descend on him, convincing him he should run for governor. He is the last to learn he is not supposed to win.

He processes that first betrayal in a mesmerizing scene at a fairground. As moviegoers we’ve seen over and over the bit where the protagonist makes The Big Speech, and we watch as, one by one, the faces in the crowd turn, focus, begin to nod to themselves, and gradually are moved to ecstasy by the power of the words. That scene is common – what is rare is that the unity of the speech and the charisma of the performer is worthy to the task, so the effect of his call to arms washes over the audience in the theater as well. This is the talent of Sean Penn, who in two minutes transforms from natterer to Messiah and we buy it.

That moment, where Stark opens himself as a channel through which the rural and impoverished can pour all their frustrated rage, is the pivot point of his entire life. He promises roads, and free schoolbooks, and hospitals, and he promises to shake down every oil millionaire he has to in order to pay for it. And on these promises he is swept into power.

As a governor he has enough of a chip on his shoulder to bully the entrenched, but also the means to submit to weaknesses he’d never known were within him – he’s easy prey for fine food, and for women who are attracted to power. This latter aspect, I think, is one of the movie’s crucial mistakes; while it is not shy about presenting the parade of dancing girls who find their way to his private penthouse elevator, it is his relationships with more important women, particularly the spurned but resourceful Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson) that ultimately expose him to his enemies, and we only get to glimpse those movements through secondhand dialogue. Stark believes in the dictum that you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, what he fails to remember is that they are still his enemies.

All the King’s Men
see the machine of influence and wealth as a beast which protects and preserves itself by instinct. One hand doesn’t need to tell the other what to do, and in the face of it a lone man like Stark can only look and act the more paranoid and unhinged as it turns inexorably against him. Over and over he takes to the Capitol steps to preach, and feed off the populace he believes he is serving, but as time goes on it’s more of a desperate hunger, for an appetite that’s grown beyond them.

The movie has a large canvas – I’ve yet to even mention the people in Jack Burden’s world, like the influential Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), who was kind to Burden growing up but now stands in his boss’s way. Or like the Stanton family, the son (Mark Ruffalo) and daughter (Kate Winslet) of a beloved and admired ex-governor. The inscrutable isolation and loneliness of the son, what happened on a particular night between Burden and the daughter, the nature of his relationship with the Judge, all will be absorbed into Stark’s machinations, as well as the grand design none of them can yet see.

What I am describing to you is a great story, which All the King’s Men was and remains. Zaillian’s movie benefits from fine acting across the supporting cast (which underplays to balance Penn’s zealous absolutism), Pawel Edelman’s rich photography and meticulous production design by Patrizia von Brandenstein (moving the period up from the 30’s to just after World War II). It does enough right that I can recommend it, including an even treatment of the inherently complex legacy of a Willie Stark, or a Huey Long. But it falls short of greatness, unable to do everything the story demands, unable to capture every facet of fate set in motion, and too willing to sink into Jack Burden’s private moroseness. He is our eyes, our reporter on the scene, and a good reporter ought to know that the story shouldn’t be so much about him.


Post a Comment

<< Home