'All the King's Men' Goes South

The film itself operates like a sleazy politician.

By Steve Burgess 22 Sep 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Sean Penn, presser of flesh

TV ads for All the King's Men boast some glowing reviews. It's magnificent! A masterpiece! You have to wait a few seconds to discover the quotes all come from one source: talk show host Larry King. Uh-oh. It's a dangerous sign when a movie needs to mine plaudits from CNN's uber-ass-kisser.

As it turns out, the movie is not nearly bad enough to be All Larry King's Men. But this remake of the 1949 Best Picture winner is not particularly good either. Marshalling Sean Penn and Jude Law and a big name supporting cast, director Steven Zaillian returns to Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in search of another Oscar-worthy epic. What he produces is simply more proof that nobody in Hollywood ever read Ann Landers. If it ain't broke don't fix it, Ann used to say. They rarely say that in Hollywood, where classics get remade just because they're there.

Mean drunk

All the King's Men tells the story of politician Willie Stark (Penn), an idealist-turned-demagogue who corrupts almost everyone around him, excepting only those who don't need the encouragement. Law plays Jack Burden, a newspaperman captured by Stark's early idealism and then trapped by Stark and the screenwriters into doing the governor's dirty work. Kate Winslet plays Burden's former sweetheart and current co-corruptee; Anthony Hopkins is his noble stepdad and soon-to-be-victim. James Gandolfini is Stark's main flunky, and Patricia Clarkson his main squeeze.

Stark is encouraged to run for state governor, only to discover that he is being played for a patsy by the incumbent, who needs Stark in the race to split votes. That's when Willy gets mad. Like Clint Eastwood's murderous William Munny in Unforgiven, Willie Stark gets mean when he drinks. When he switches from orange pop to whiskey, he's about to start breathing fire into the race.

Then he wins and gets corrupt. Folks, it happens just that fast. This movie just can't wait to get to the corrupt part so that Stark can start messing with the integrity of the supporting cast. Problem is, the movie hurries through the process so quickly that there is no sense of tragedy to the Stark story. The film is more interested in the lives of the upper-class toffs who are dragged down with him, and they are simply not as interesting. At least, they aren't as interesting as Stark ought to be, considering his real-life inspiration.

The real Kingfish

Warren based Stark loosely on the life and career of former Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, the legendary Kingfish who nearly reinvented American populism. Bits of the real-life Long make it into Zaillian's film, such as his theme song "Every Man a King." But Long was a far more compelling and tragic figure than the Willie Stark shown here. With any luck PBS will rebroadcast Ken Burns' documentary on the Kingfish so that people can see the complexity of the man -- genuinely corrupt, a threat to democracy, and yet a man whose political priorities most Tyee readers would admire.

Long's populist speeches were little masterpieces of their kind. As represented here by the stump speeches of Willie Stark, they might well have shown the appeal of the man. But the film itself operates like a sleazy politician. We don't simply hear Willie Stark on the stump -- we hear Willie Stark and his 70-piece orchestra. Like a legislator on the take, the obnoxious soundtrack slides in to lend influence where the script ought to earn its results without assistance.

Drawl, The King's Men

It's frequently difficult to follow what's supposed to be going on -- suffice for us to understand it's all very seamy. The original 1949 film, boasting an Oscar-winning star turn by Broderick Crawford as Stark, has never been a particular favourite of mine. But it certainly possesses a narrative drive that this lumbering version lacks. If memory serves, it also mercifully spares us the Southern accents of some very Northern actors. Just as Hollywood always casts attractive women to play unattractive ones (glasses and a bun should do it), big stars from elsewhere are frequently conscripted to play denizens of Dixie. Listening to the faux-Louisiana drawls of Penn, Law and Gandolfini can take you right out of the movie, if you're still in it. (Clarkson's role was originally to be played by Meryl Streep -- what an accent fest it might have been!)

There's some clumsy and overused foreshadowing of violence, followed by some clumsy symbolism at the finish. I defy anyone to care very much. The most interesting thing I took away from the movie was the fact that the state's license plates once carried the slogan, "Louisiana Yams." Somebody probably paid the Kingfish a bundle for that plug.

Steve Burgess reviews the screen, big and small, for The Tyee.

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