All the King's Men
I came to the screening of All the King's Men prepared to open my review thusly: "There is no such thing as a sure thing. No matter how good something looks on paper--an Academy Award-winning writer/director, an impeccable Oscar-lauded cast, a remake of a 1949 Best Picture-winning film that was itself based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel--does not mean that, when put on screen, it will be nothing short of brilliant." I was toying around with the opening line idea because I was sure the movie was going to be a failure. The reviews were merciless. Rotten Tomatoes gave it only a 12% approval rating. How could I be faulted for going into it with low expectations?
So you can imagine my surprise as, while I kept waiting for a cinematic derailment that never came, I found myself liking the film more and more.
When it ended and the credits began to role, two women behind me rose, one commenting to the other,
"Wait a second. I thought that was supposed to suck. That movie was marvelous."
"Yeah," said her friend, "Fucking critics."
I, as a critic, can hardly ask you, the reader, to ignore the critics, but this, in my opinion, is one of those moments when you must. When the democracy of critique fails and the minority sees something the masses do not. That the minority here is "the people" and not ivory tower-bound critics championing some cinematic obscurity is not lost on me. Not after seeing this film.
All the Kings Men is a film about good men gone bad. It is a film, if you believe the Holy Bible, about man's origin from dirt and the original sin from which he is incapable of escaping. It is a film about loss, deception, betrayal, unfulfilled expectations and regret. It is a film about morality and potential thrown aside in pursuit of power. It is a film about human frailty.
And it is based on fact.
The rise and fall of Louisiana politician and populist dynamo Huey Long inspired the nearly 700-page novel on which both films are based. Dubbed the "most entertaining tyrant in American history," Long was loathed by President Franklin Roosevelt who thought him "one of the most dangerous men in the country." First governor and then Senator, Long had ambitions for the White House. He ran his state like a dictator, earning him the scorn of the elite but the love of the populous to whom he brought roads, schools, bridges, hospitals and universities. He just may have made good on his ambitions had he not been gunned down at the age of 42. Many still believe his fellow senators had him assassinated. His dying words were, "God, don't let me die. I have so much to do."
From this rich and colorful storehouse, writer/director Steve Zaillian, an Oscar-winner for his screenplay for Shindler's List, evokes a lush melodrama about the corruptibility of us all.
The story of All the King's Men revolves around small-time parish treasurer Willie Stark, who is persuaded to run for governor of the bedraggled state of Louisiana. (Sean Penn plays Willie Stark as only Sean Penn can. Passion bordering on hysteria. Charisma straying toward the volcanic. To see Penn deliver the film's many righteous, fiery harangues is to perhaps see a future Best Actor award in the making.) When Willie discovers the political operatives behind him are interested only in using him for their own gain, he turns the tables on them and with his natural charisma, populist idealism and genuine compassion, sweeps into the governor's mansion in a land-slide.
Reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) believes nothing's ever going to change in Louisiana politics. Willie Stark believes exactly the opposite. He believes he IS that change, "Jesus come down from the cross" in Jack's editor's words. It is this very idealism that attracts blue-blooded Jack to working-man Willie, a curiosity about the politician's best of intentions that keeps him tied to the governor long after he knows Willie has been overcome by sleaze and graft despite his best intentions.
It isn't long before the moneyed Old Guard--everything Willie Stark fights against--seize on his peccadilloes and predilections and use them to call for an impeachment. Leading the charge is retired Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), who is Jack's godfather and the uncle of Jack's childhood best friend (Mark Ruffolo) and sweetheart (Kate Winslet) who compromise a somewhat muddled and overlong (though imperative) subplot. Soon, Jack is caught between loyalty to his family and friends and a vision of Louisiana's glorious future, just a compromise or two away from being a reality.
It hit me at some point how alike All the King's Men is to Citizen Kane. Both feature good, idealistic men who rise to monumental power on a tidal wave of idealism only to have that idealism, and that power snatched out from under them because of their own greed, ambition and corruption.
All the King's Men is not a perfect film. Incoherent at times, overlong throughout, and lacking the sort of character development that reveals the small compromises that lead to tragic falls from greateness, the film nonetheless is guiltless of its savaging in the press.
Zaillian's direction is nothing short of inspired. Composer James Horner's score is thunderous. Costume Designer Merit Allen's wardrobe choices--bland variations of grays and browns--perfectly evoke the inner melancholy of their wearers. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman's camera is miraculous. Shot entirely on location in Louisiana, shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck, the location itself becomes a character--dilapidated mansions, moss-festooned trees, rain-sodden swamps, and fascist architecture that looks like something straight out of Mussolini's Italy but is, in fact, the Baton Rouge courthouse, built by Huey Long. (Interesting that a film about Louisiana's dispossessed, poor and disenfranchised should come out at exactly the time when the lessons taught by Katrina are already beginning to fade.)
The true tragedy of Willie Stark is not political in nature. It is personal. The true tragedy lies in the collapse of great intentions and compromised integrity. It didn't all happen at once, of course. It never does. It happens over time, in small, almost unrecognizable steps. When the mangled end comes, it is far from the luminescent beginning but one hardly noticed the journey from there to here. And great falls never occur in isolation--they always capsize the lives of those closet to them. Willie Stark may have been a good governor of the people, but his undoing was the result of the one thing he couldn't govern--his heart--"deceitful and wicked above all things," even his idealism.