Set in the 1950s, All the King’s Men chronicles the rise, reign, and fall of fictional Louisiana Governor Willie Stark (Penn), and it strives to be an epic about politics, ambition, and corruption. But instead of a seamless story, writer/director Steve Zallian breaks the film into three distinct sections that feel hastily sandwiched together. The first act watches Stark’s meteoric political rise through the eyes of reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law). Initially egged into the race as a ploy by another candidate to “split the hick vote,” Stark finds he can outsmart his opponents by rallying the regular folks behind the flag of redistributive populism, promising to build better roads and a grand new hospital while declaring “war on the rich” and the “old boys in the Senate.” Stark’s transformation, which could’ve filled an entire movie on its own, is far too hasty. In just a few minutes of screen time, he leaps from “Aww, shucks” man of the people to a swaggering, tailored-suit clad Guvnuh of Loozyanna.
The first act promises to explore the conflicts between power, personality, and the will of the people, but the subsequent two acts veer off course, never to return. As soon as Stark reaches office, the movie switches gears into a Law and Order style procedural tracking Burden’s attempts to discredit a prominent judge and political opponent (Anthony Hopkins), then drops the investigative aspect entirely for a series of unearned twists and a final stab at grand tragedy. There are various zigs and zags in the story, including run-ins with an opponent’s thug (James Gandolfini), a young, esteemed doctor (Mark Ruffalo), and the doctor’s sister (Kate Winslet). With its heavyweight cast and immaculate photography by Pawel Edelman, some of the scenes can’t help but crackle, but mostly the movie flounders under a narrative as gravelly and unnecessarily twisted as the old Louisiana roads throughout which Stark campaigns.
Part of the problem is that, like the similarly gorgeous-but-grim Road to Perdition (which also starred Law), Zallian’s direction emphasizes painterly compositions but keeps characters cool and removed. There’s a sort of distant beauty to the production, with its soft light and heavy grey palette, that keeps even the fieriest of emotions at arm’s length. Nor does it help that Stark, the film’s central figure, is seen mostly through the filter of Burden and his experiences, putting a barrier between Stark and the audience. Like too many politicians, the movie is always willing to indulge in the artifice of emotion, but never wants to engage in real feeling.
Penn, of course, drums up a mighty self-righteous bellow at every opportunity. Like everything in the movie, he strains to project seriousness, pointing his finger wildly and hurling impassioned shouts until his forehead drips with real, Method-actor sweat. But for all its passionate verbosity, the actor’s part is underwritten. Always framed to suggest fat-cat grandeur, he’s more of a speechifying symbol than a person. As a result, Penn’s powerful bluster goes entirely into the words, essentially transforming him from actor to orator. He may not be able to convince anyone of his character, but he’ll clobber everyone within screaming distance with his jambalaya-thick Louisiana accent.
Quietly lurking under the din of Penn’s shouting is an interesting idea about the tendency of government power to corrupt good intentions. Personal ambition and the force of the state are a potent drink, and the film intimates that Stark has become inebriated by it. It might’ve been interesting to push this to its logical conclusion—that even those state-run programs intended to aid the needy are destined to fail—but Zallian leaves this idea flailing, preferring to indulge in cinematic antics as self-serving and overblown as Stark’s political programs.
But for all its aspirations to cinematic greatness, Zallian’s film is remarkably cliché-ridden. The script fills Burden’s voiceover with such banal insights as, “You only get a couple of moments that determine your life,” and allows Penn to spout equally dull bits of wisdom, like when he tells Burden that “You work for me cause I’m the way I am and you’re the way you are.” It’s so shallow it must be deep! Nor does the screenplay shy from obvious, overused moments and devices familiar to all political-movie junkies. There’s The Downfall of a Great Man. There’s The Sleazy Political Operative Who Gets His Comeuppance (he literally falls into a muddy pig pit, just to make sure you get the idea). And of course, there’s The Politician Who Dumps the Canned Speech And Tells It Like It Is (To Much Fanfare).
All the King’s Men yearns to be a weighty drama about politics, ambition, and corruption, but it’s so blinkered by its virtuoso cast and photography that it can’t stop itself from showing off. Spending far too much time trying to convince viewers of its greatness, it never manages to get around to actually being great, and instead, gets upstaged by its own inflated ego.
– Peter Suderman is assistant editorial director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He blogs on film and culture at www.alarm-alarm.com.