Movie Review: All the King’s Men

The 1949 film version of All The King’s Men does not appear on anyone’s list of all-time classics, in spite of its Academy Award recognition. Other movies from the same decade enjoy better reputations. Certainly Casablanca had more memorable dialogue and The Best Years of Our Lives displayed better acting. And yet, the original adaptation of All The King’s Men from book to movie by director Robert Rossen so many decades ago effectively captured and portrayed the decaying arc of a simple man corrupted by unbridled power.

Most older movies pale in comparison to their modern remakes. They are usually left in the dust of state-of-the-art technology, sophisticated acting technique and enlightened social sensibilities. Contrary to such conventional wisdom, the original version maintains an edge over the new release of All The King’s Men by Columbia Pictures starring Sean Penn, Jude Law and Kate Winslet. The 1949 film took the effort to demonstrate how a man can do bad things for good reasons. It had substance. While the remake directed by Stephen Zaillian has the right look and the necessary acting firepower, it stops short of showing how moral rot spreads like kudzu. To use another Southern simile, the current version of All The King’s Men is like a poorboy sandwich without the stuffing.

The foundation of this complex story is Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel studying a character named Willie Stark who was actually a thinly veiled fictionalization of Louisiana’s Depression era politician Huey Long. While the first film version was set in the generic South, today’s incarnation emphatically underscores Louisiana as the hothouse locale.

At least two essential plot elements of Penn Warren’s story, which were utilized intelligently in the original adaptation to screen, are squandered in Zaillian’s current version. As a result, it feels gutted. Zaillian has said publicly that he has never seen the Rossen film starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland and John Derek. Whether this absence is deliberate or accidental, more is the pity.

In director Rossen’s screenplay, it is clear that hayseed Willie Stark is duped by his political enemies to run for governor merely to split the “hick” vote. He loses, as planned. Stark realizes how he has been used and this is the cynical beginning of his political education. He ruthlessly captures the governor’s seat several years later because he has “learned to win.” The plot line in the current release, however, leads us to believe that Stark wins the gubernatorial race the first time. This acceleration allows for no learning curve and prevents Stark from stewing in his own juice, as it were.

Penn Warren and Rossen took pains to depict the ever-darkening spiral of events that lead to a call for Stark’s impeachment. Not the least of these is his son’s drunk driving accident in which a young woman is killed, resulting in Stark’s utilization of bribery and perhaps murder to cover up the incident. Zaillian’s film starts out with impeachment dangling over Stark’s head and, even with the help of various flashbacks and time manipulations, never actually shows any impeachable offenses committed by Stark. It is as if Zaillian is reluctant to let us dislike Stark.

The director should have had more confidence in his lead actor to be able to pull this off. Sean Penn is fully equipped to suck out all our empathy for a flawed man doing the right things the wrong way. The depth of his talent is evident in a recording studio sequence in which he sings an awful ditty called “Every Man a King.” This jingle for the hicks was actually written by Huey Long. Penn acts up a storm, sometimes without enough structural story underpinning. In such a vacuum, however, his flailing gesticulations begin to resemble John Belushi’s imitation of Joe Cocker on Saturday Night Live.

Jude Law is suitably understated as Jack Burden, the consummate passive journalist. Zaillian’s camera lingers over his prettiness frequently and languidly, emphasizing that Burden’s detachment is his ultimate undoing.

Anthony Hopkins provides a brief but luscious performance as a judge who has flirted with the boundaries of right and wrong, proving again that his presence bestows cache to any film.

Despite the skewing of form over substance in this remake of All The King’s Men, the strongest message delivered by Robert Penn Warren cannot be ignored. A pivotal passage that remains true in both film versions has Willie Stark debating the issue of good versus evil with his moral nemesis. The detractor despises Stark’s belief that the end justifies any means. Stark tells him that all good must come from evil. His counterpart asks how, under these standards, you can possibly define what is good. To this, Stark answers, “You make it up as you go along.”

Director Zaillian finds a visually compelling method for commingling the blood of these polar opposite men of good and evil. The spectacularly cynical ideology of “making it up as you go along” should be especially chilling for audiences today.

All The King’s Men has a running time of 120 minutes.

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