All the King’s Men

| September 24, 2006

After watching the new film All the King’s Men, I went to my corner liquor store to buy a bottle of whiskey. No doubt this was influenced by seeing the characters in the film drink bourbon in virtually every single scene, but whatever, I was out of whiskey. As I completed my purchase, the sales person looked at me and said, “don’t worry, the day is almost over.” I had been thinking about the take-out food awaiting me in the car, but apparently, the look on my face indicated that I intended to drink the entire bottle of whiskey that night. Such is the effect of All the King’s Men.
The film’s director, Steve Zaillian, is best known as a screenwriter/script doctor, with a good deal of experience with adaptations, having adapted for the screen novels such as Clear and Present Danger, A Civil Action, and Schindler’s List. All the King’s Men is another adaptation: a remake of the 1949 film, which is itself an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, who wrote about a politician quite similar to real-life Louisiana governor Huey Long. This film has so many antecedents, both real and imaginary, that it’s not surprising it feels heavy, overly symbolic, and convoluted.
Zaillian’s All the King’s Men features Oscar winner Sean Penn playing the Huey Long-inspired character Willie Stark. Penn is a ferocious actor, and Zaillian relishes every impassioned speech delivered through Penn’s thick Louisiana accent. Stark is a populist politician who takes on the elite establishment in Louisiana to better the lives of the common people, or so he says. Early in the film, Zaillian presents Penn’s speeches in the bright daylight, with him surrounded by small crowds of the common folk. He frequently shoots the charismatic Penn from behind, to highlight his dramatic gestures and the way he moves his entire body to emphasize each statement. As Stark rises in power, day turns to night as Stark starts delivering speeches in the darkness atop stone monuments surrounded by sycophants. Zaillian then shoots Penn from below, with his larger than life shadow moving in his staccato style behind him.
How often do real-life political candidates speak outside at night, you may ask. But you see, Zaillian is using the nighttime as a metaphor–Stark’s actions have become shadowy and his motivations are more difficult to discern. Add to this the fact that James Horner’s triumphant music has become dissonant and strange, and you have a full recipe for “something’s not right” here. Zaillian’s other metaphors are just as obvious, and they overload the movie with cumbersome meaning, that in fact means very little at all.
With so much mood, Zaillian apparently ran out of room for character. Consider Jude Law’s Jack Burden, a disenchanted reporter who accepts a job with Stark when his editor tries to force him to align himself with the newspaper’s political party. As Burden, Law wanders through the film like a lost lamb, constantly on the outside, perpetually detached. Burden comes from money, and Stark exploits his wealthy connections to connive a judge to defend Stark against impeachment hearings. Sure, Burden evidences some hesitation about blackmailing this judge, who acted as a father figure for Burden in his youth, but he never challenges Stark or his internal monologue about his conflict is kept to a minimum, despite the ever-present voiceover meant to be intriguing that conveys little useful information.
So what’s his trauma? Enter Kate Winslet as Anne Stanton. Thing is, she enters the story half-way through the film. Odd positioning for someone so pivotal to Burden. After indulging in several fractured flashbacks about his friendship with Anne and her brother Adam (a surprisingly lethargic Mark Ruffalo), Burden admits in his voiceover that Anne was his first and only love (no surprises there). Zaillian plays up the angelic radiance of Anne Stanton, in large part to expose her darker side later in the film, but her interaction with Burden fails to illuminate his willingness to sell his soul. The eventual reveal of his trauma seems forced, and Law cannot break free from his character’s repression to offer us a moment of genuine feeling to arouse our empathy. In their one honest argument, Stanton and Burden reach a breaking point, but instead of finally discussing what has hurt them most, the scene ends with a whimper. What a waste of Law and Winslet.
Despite his long history with adaptations, Zaillian seems unsure about what is his main story. Is this a film about Stark? About Burden? About their relationship? About Burden’s love for Anne Stanton? Throw in several other tangents, including Burden’s betrayal of his pseudo-adopted father and his best friend, and the only thing you can really say about this movie is that everyone in the film is a soulless cipher. No wonder I ended up at the liquor store buying whiskey.
With so little to draw my emotion, the movie depends upon delivering some sort of intellectual or political message. It fails there, too. Despite the involvement of Democratic spokesperson James Carville, the film doesn’t tell a leftist fairy tale. Zaillian makes it clear that Stark has been seduced by the dark side with his heavy-handed depiction of Stark’s renunciation of sobriety and his heavy-handed tactics. Yet Zaillian refuses to demonize Stark, as well. It is unclear how we should feel for him, and his eventual destruction leaves a pretty but morbid picture of the costs of power. This picture, though pretty, fails to deliver greater complexity beneath its lovely veneer.
In quieter moments, Stark and Burden engage in some subtle and intriguing dialogue. With two powerhouse actors, Zaillian should have been able to deliver a rousing examination of one man’s journey towards greatness and another man’s journey towards self-destruction. Trouble is, these quieter moments are few and far between, with Zaillian choosing to embrace the dramatic over the human, the showy over the more potent possibilities of subtlety.

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