All The King's Men

All The King's Men

***1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

Willie Stark (Sean Penn), a door-to-door salesman, is a straightforward guy with decent morals and a commitment to the common weal. Such a winning profile is quickly spotted by political hucksters who disingenuously persuade him to stand for Louisiana State Governor simply to split the opposition vote.

Stark gets wise to this attempt to use him as a pawn and, in a dramatic turnabout, throws away a prepared speech and appeals to the people, declaring himself a "hick among the hicks," who will stand up for the commoners' needs. Once made Governor, he does indeed set about popular reform programs, also hiring reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) to dig dirt on anyone who stands in his way.

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Jack comes from the wrong (well heeled) side of town and soon finds his loyalties torn, when Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins) refuses publicly to support Stark. Jack also has unpleasant surprises in store, as he is reunited with childhood friends, Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo), a determinedly unmaterialistic character, who doesn't want to be in anyone's pocket, and his luscious sister Anne (Kate Winslet), both of whom tangle with Stark before very long.

This is a towering story set in the Deep South, amid sweltering ideals, where goodness only comes out of the dirt, which means that everyone has some dirt on them.

All The King's Men is quality, heavyweight cinema, with outstanding performances, backed by very professional direction and cinematography. Penn sets the standard, delivering one of his most moving demonstrations of carefully chiselled acting, aided by a tight script and concise editing that doesn't waste a frame, and the others follow his lead, giving it everything they've got.

With such glowing accolades, you might think I'd be struggling to find fault. Although many of the elements might individually be worthy of an Oscar, my overall impression was that the film showcases a lot of remarkable talent, rather than putting them to their finest use.

This is the second time Robert Penn Warren's novel has been made into a movie, yet we might ask ourselves if much of the subtle analysis that space allows an author is being woefully denied filmmakers because of time restraints. Although writer/director Steven Zaillian can be congratulated for not using a trowel to lay on contemporary analogies about political power, corruption and oil, some character development in other morally ambiguous areas would not have gone amiss.

Did power corrupt Willie Stark and how far did he go in using criminals to further his public works? Penn creates a powerful figure, but the story, for all its tension, remains sadly predictable. The title is never clearly explained, although can be attributed a saying, or motto, used by Governor Huey Long, upon whom the novel was allegedly based - "Every Man A King" was part of a Share Our Wealth program of heavy taxation for wealthy individuals and corporations.

In 1929, Long called a special session of the legislature to enact a five-cent-per-barrel "occupational license tax" on production of refined oil, in order to help fund social programs. What would originally have been a complex trade off between the rich elite and an impoverished, post-Depression lower class is reduced in the movie to high-sounding truisms about ideals and finding things of value. The rhetoric, forcefully delivered, is an actor's dream, but although the story is beautifully and dramatically told, it lacks surprise, is heavy with its own self-importance and may tempt some audiences to exclaim, "So what?"

Reading up on the background can supply a context that gives All The King's Men greater depth, but, as entertainment, it is a tour-de-force that remains slightly unsatisfying.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2006
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An ordinary man enters politics and finds himself drawn into corruption.
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Director: Steven Zaillian

Writer: Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren

Starring: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Jackie Earle Haley, Kathy Baker, Talia Balsam

Year: 2006

Runtime: 140 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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